The Virtues of Girl Detectives

photo courtesy of Elizabeth Frantz

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Frantz

Happy Publication Day to librarian Max Wirestone, whose debut mystery, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, hits library and bookstore shelves today. To celebrate this important occasion, Wirestone shares some of the attributes of his favorite fictional girl detectives that influenced his own creation.

The girl detective is a figure we’re all familiar with, especially those of us who were readers as kids. She’s zealous about righting wrongs—and perhaps a little disillusioned with the adults around her who aren’t doing a good job of it. She sometimes gets in over her head, but always triumphs in the end. Who didn’t go through a period of carrying around a magnifying glass and wishing she could be Nancy Drew?

But within the girl detective archetype, there’s lots of variation. Are you more of a digging-through-the-archives detective or do you prefer to get your hands dirty? Do you investigate comic book-style crime or brutal murders? Are your shirts starched and ironed or crumpled and stained? No matter what, there’s a mystery for you! Here I’d like to introduce you to a few of my favorite girl detectives, each matched to the virtue that best embodies them and their crime-solving methods.

Nancy Drew – Purity
A lot has been written about Nancy Drew, and it’s a little reductive, I know, to narrow her 71AwtzlNA3L[1]down to a single idea. Nancy Drew is a lot of people’s first detective, and she’s in a league with Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple in terms her of influence on the genre.That said — Nancy is all about Purity. Not ‘saving yourself’ Purity — but actual Purity, as in absolute goodness.

Is there a kinder detective? Anywhere?  Unlike other fictional sleuths, Nancy solves mysteries out of a need to help others. People don’t hire her; a party is wronged and she offers to help them. Sometimes she assists them without offering, because Nancy Drew is also sort of a badass. A gentle badass. She’s like Superman, in a lot of ways (and comes from the same era). She’s a great detective (although she often modestly dresses up her deductions as mere ‘intuition’), but she always solves crimes as means to help.

Veronica Mars—Self-Awareness
71wScygAy8L[1]Veronica Mars seems, at the outset of her story, like the sort of wronged person whom Nancy would leap to represent. Her father has been (wrongfully) ousted as sheriff, her mother has left, her friend is dead, and she’s unpopular at school. Veronica has a lot of problems.

The beauty of her story, I think, is that she is her own detective, and her own heroine. Veronica’s investigation is literally about self-discovery, filling in lost units of time in her life, and making some very unpleasant discoveries. But she’s so unflinching in her pursuit of that information. Veronica is so self-aware as a detective—she understands how the world regards her, how she regards herself. Usually, when you talk about self-awareness and media, you’re talking about snark. While Veronica can do snark plenty well, the key to me is her fearlessness in figuring herself out

Turtle Wexler—Potential
If you haven’t read Ellen Raskin’s classic 1978 Newbery Award-winning The Westing Game71MT0ceUanL[1] stop now and read it. It’s a fantastic book and could be reasonably subtitled A Child’s First Head Trip.

Wealthy millionaire Sam Westing dies, and his will challenges 12 potential heirs to play his Westing game (and maybe figure out who killed him?). The book does something wonderful and very unusual in detective novels, which is that it gives the reader more information than the characters posess. More often than not, mysteries cheat the other way, withholding vital clues until late in the game, or never revealing them at all. But not here.

The effect of this is that the detectives flail around, never seeing as much as the reader, and have a difficult time of solving Westing’s puzzle. Turtle Wexler, an awkward 13 year old living in the shadow of her beautiful sister Angela and with an endearing habit of kicking wrongdoers in the shins, is as wrong as anyone in the story. Maybe even wronger.

But honestly, is there any better solution to a mysteryl than Turtle’s “answer” of “$11,587.50, an appreciation of twenty-seven point eight percent calculated on an annual basis?” Having been given money to fund her investigation, Turtle instead invests the money, and then proceeds to turn it into a larger amount, reasoning that this display of financial acumen would have impressed Westing more than anything. I can’t think of another mystery where a detective goes down a “wrong alley” that is both as obviously bonkers and so incredibly perfect.

Turtle is all about potential; and really puts the “girl”in Girl Detective. Even when she’s massively screwing up, it’s clear that Turtle is capable of greatness. Nancy Drew and Veronica Drew, for all their differences, are actually pretty realized in their own ways. Turtle is still happening—and without spoiling anything, the place where she finishes up is very different from where she starts.

Flavia de Luce—Wonder
sweetnessatbottomofpie32315At the risk of geeking out again, read Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie if you haven’t already. An amazing book, and an incredibly endearing girl detective.

Flavia de Luce is a very peculiar character. For one, she’s an 11-year-old sleuth in a book that written is for adults. She’s also the prickliest protagonist on this list—absolutely no one would confuse her with Nancy Drew (I don’t recall Nancy intentionally poisoning anyone). She’s utterly obsessed with poisons and spends much of her time in her chemistry lab seeing what things she can brew up. Just for the fun of it. And occasionally for punking those who have wronged her—nothing lethal, of course. Just unpleasant.

But for all her specificity—a budding 11-year-old girl chemist in a 1950s England is not your usual everyman—she’s one the most likable crime solvers I can think of. A lot of it comes from her seeming so incredibly real. Flavia, despite all her extraordinary abilities with chemical analysis, is actually more childlike in than anyone on this list. She travels around her small village on a bicycle named Gladys, she still believes in Santa Claus, and her brushes with death are felt only nearly as keenly as her rivalry with her older sisters. And yet, Flavia’s willingness to charge into situations—her childlike belief in her invulnerability—makes for spellbinding reading.

Without making too much of the author’s age—Bradley published this book, his first, in his seventies—and Flavia, to me, feels like a ode to the power of youth. Her naivety and capacity for wonder never limit her as a detective and  give her a perspective that no one else has.

Read this series. It’s sweet and wonderful—and Flavia is the perfect 1950s answer to Girl Geekery.

Velma Dinkley—Confidence
Velma_Dinkley[1]Ha ha, yes Velma. But seriously, for a cartoon TV show as (enjoyably) slight as Scooby-Doo, a lot has been written about Velma Dinkley. Is she a lesbian? Does she have a crush on Daphne? Why is she hanging around with these stoners? What’s with that bowl cut?

Velma is a mystery. The character has been iterated a few times, but the fundamentals never change. She has some serious vision problems without her glasses, she solves mysteries, and she’s a little weird.

But here’s the thing about Velma: she does not need your approbation. Flavia de Luce yearns for the love of her father, Veronica Mars needs the acceptance of her friends, Nancy Drew thrives on the support of the community, Turtle Wexler needs a mentor. Velma Dinkley says no way. She’s here to solve mysteries and unmask men in monster costumes. She doesn’t care if you like her hair, her name, her glasses, or her outfit. She doesn’t need to tell you about her sexual orientation. She’s cool. What’s your problem? (Besides which, she’s already figured out yours.)

Velma hasn’t changed her clothes in 50 years. That’s confidence. Forty years before the phrase “let your freak flag fly” even originated, Velma has been doing her own thing. Jinkies, the woman has her own slang.

Velma Dinkley is not afraid to be herself, and we could all stand to learn from that.

Dahlia Moss—Persistance
For my own girl detective, I tried to take the best pieces of the greats. Flavia’s Wonder, Turtle’s Wirestone_DahliaMoss-HC (3)Possibility, Veronica’s Self-Awareness. Admittedly, I went a little light on Purity. But if Dahlia had to have a virtue of her own, I think it would be Persistance.

Let’s face it, Dahlia’s case is nuts. A total stranger hires her out of the blue to recover a spear that was stolen from him from within a video game. Dahlia’s got no experience as a detective, and she’s still trying to figure out why the guy hired her, when he’s murdered by a 3D-printed replica of the spear she had been assigned to find. Before she knows it, Dahlia is pursued by police detectives, angry guildmates, scantily clad cosplayers, and (possibly) an elf who wants her dead.

With no skills, no money, and no resources, Dahlia Moss has to work it all out. The chips are down, but, of course, that’s when girl detectives do their best.