Murder, She Blogged: Young Detectives

One of the reasons the detective genre is so beloved for so many of us, I think, is because we grow up on mysteries and detective stories. 

Cover of a Nancy Drew Files book

Nancy Drew looms large when it comes to detective fiction for young people, about young people. I’ve been avoiding writing about Nancy, I must admit, because I fear I never really liked her when I was a kid. (It might have been because I was reading in the 1980s, when the action had shifted to The Nancy Drew Files. Apparently this incarnation of the teen detective has been roundly rubbished.)

Drew is surely the detective character most cited as a proto-feminist heroine, despite some super dodgy race issues with the early books, and has famously inspired women such as Sonia Sotomayor and Hillary Clinton. There is even a feminist hip hop group called Nancy Drew Crew.

Who are the other female detective characters from children’s/young adult literature?

Obviously, being English, I grew up on the Famous Five and Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, both of which involve posses of young amateur sleuths solving crime and going on picnics.

Problematic doesn’t begin to describe Blyton’s books, as most people will be aware: written over 50 years ago, they reflected the attitudes of their time, with plenty of racism and sexism, and also her protagonists are almost exclusively upper class.

Despite there being a full seven child detectives in the Secret Seven books, the girls are pathetic hangers on, and there are loads of negative comments that don’t rise much above “girls suck”.

The Famous Five was arguably as bad: the five are made up of three siblings, Julian, Dick and Anne; and their cousin, the wonderful, cross, independent “tomboy” George and her dog Timmy. Anne, who is a limp noodle, represents the ideal of what girls are meant to be; George pushes against these boundaries. George refuses to be called by her given name Georgina and is represented as wanting to be a boy. 

I Was a Teenage Book Geek has written a great post about George and the Famous Five, which I think makes some wonderful points about why these books were so appealing, and continue to have significance for feminists, despite their many flaws:

Sure, they were formulaic, and the main girl character Anne was a total sap, but I loved the fact that the children in these stories had so much freedom. I mean, they could go sailing by themselves and sleep on an island all night and that was just fine. They had the space and time to get into adventures, whereas kids of my generation were so closely guarded that there was absolutely zero chance of us stumbling across shipwrecked gold. 

Coming up to the modern day, there are some contemporary examples that can perhaps be enjoyed with slightly fewer caveats, such as the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, which centres on the cases solved by Sherlock’s younger sister. Although it does indulge in some tropes and cliches, her mum is a suffragette! In an interview with Book Yurt, Springer was asked if it was intimidating to encroach on the Sherlock Holmes canon, and she said:

Not at all, because while Doyle was a very good writer, he was also quite a misogynist. Occasionally and with difficulty he represents women positively, but much more often he has Holmes dismiss them as hopelessly vapid, hysterical and illogical. I exploited with glee Sherlock’s complete ignorance of the feminine sphere of Victorian society.

Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart Quartet gives us another mystery-solving young woman character—albiet one who mostly solves mysteries about her own life—and then there are the Wilma Tenderfoot books by Emma Kennedy.

I’ve really struggled to find examples of young female detective characters of color. I did find a mention of the Screech Owl series, which involves a much more diverse ice hockey team of children who solve mysteries. But the info on this series online seems pretty limited. 

Chris Routledge wrote about the appeal of detective stories for children and the importance these stories can have, which really underlines what a hole is being left by authors:

While detective stories almost by definition must deal in uncertainties, mistaken identities and ambiguity, for child detectives the process of detection is more than an unravelling of clues. Many child detectives, including Horowitz’s young spy Alex Rider, and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, are orphans, or in some other way abandoned by or separated from their adult carers. Iconoclastic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, whose whole identity is defined by his rational method and his commitment to the science of deduction, is not personally challenged by the act of detecting itself. For many child detectives however the pursuit of criminals also involves the exploration of their relationships with adults, with their understanding of the world, and with their own identities.

Being a bit advanced in years at 29 to read all that much young adult and children’s fiction, I’m a bit clueless when it comes to the most contemporary examples. What were/are your favorite children’s/young adult detectives? 

by Jess Mccabe
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

12 Comments Have Been Posted

Another one!

I remember reading and loving the Boxcar Children series. They were orphaned and lived with their grandfather, I believe? Or someone who adopted them but was grandfatherly in kindness and age? I don't honestly remember, but they had the same experiences of being able to just hang out on an island by themselves when the oldest child was like.. 14 years old.

Really interesting books, good mysteries, and good messages usually. The first one was written in the early 1920's.
I think there are close to 150 books in the series.

The females are depicted to be as capable and interesting as the males. There was never any time where I thought, "man, they didn't develop her as much as him" etc. The females generally take over the cooking/cleaning roles when they are living on their own, but that wasn't unusual for the times, and the males help quite a bit with things as well.

I loved the Sally Lockheart Quartet!

There's a series of books by Canadian author Eric Wilson who wrote about Liz and Tom Austen, a brother and sister detective team. Sometimes they worked together, and sometimes they each had stories of their own. Most (if not all) of the books were set in different Canadian locales, so the young reader often learned a bit about geography and history of that area. My sisters and I used to read these voraciously when we were younger.

I also have a semi-secret love of collecting old Trixie Belden books, (Preferably these editions!
They are pretty cliché -- and that's putting it mildly-- but I can't help myself. The refreshing thing abour Trizie however, is that she is far from perfect, especially when she's contrasted with Nancy Drew, who never appealed to me in the same way as Trixie. In any case, I blame my Trixie Belden habit on my aunt who gave me a copy of "Trixie Belden and the Sasquatch Mystery" when I was a kid.

Finally, I'm not sure if this will count as "young adult," but one of my favourite mystery novels is Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, which features a flock of sheep as the detectives, and in particular Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep of them all.

OMG I need to read this book

Three Bags Full

This book is dynamite. Seriously. Made even better by the little jumping sheep flip animation on the bottom corner of the pages.

I was nuts for the Sammy

I was nuts for the Sammy Keyes books. I don't remember how they rated from a social-justice standpoint, but they followed Sammy, a 7th-grade girl from I think the California town of Santa Marina who lives (illegally) with her grandma in a seniors-restricted apartment building and rides a skateboard.

Flavia de Luce!

How about Flavia de Luce from Alan Bradley's series of books? Granted these aren't marketed as YA but I don't see why teenagers wouldn't find them as fantastic as adults do. An eleven-year-old chemist with a flawed, eccentric family makes a great amateur sleuth.

Nancy Springer WTF?!

I had never heard of Springer's Enola Holmes mysteries. I'm a big feminist and a big fan of the SH novels, and I have myself indulged in composing some fiction about Holmes's kick ass younger sister, whom I called Annabelle. So I was really excited to hear that these were published out there. But now I wonder how Springer could have written a whole series of Holmes spin offs when she obviously doesn't understand the first thing about A Conan Doyle, whose stories are FAR from misogynistic. "Occasionally and with difficulty he represents women positively." I'm sorry, but what stories is she reading!? How about often and easily? There is a lot of scholarship on the complex and constant feminist themes found in the SH stories. Yes, Sherlock is an ignorant misogynist, especially in the earlier stories, mostly because he has trouble reading women (Aspergers syndrome, pretty much a consensus). But he gets his ass handed to him by Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia," proving that C. Doyle does not agree with his character's incorrect attitudes. And the narrator, Watson, is also not a fan, calling one of Holmes sexist remarks "an atrocious sentiment" in "The Sign of Four." Meanwhile, Doyle has more frequently complex female characters move through his narratives then male, with themes that subtly support the burgeoning New Woman movement of the 19th century, even legislation that was appearing in the late 19th century that emancipated women form the financial control of their husbands and fathers. I'm sorry, but while these stories are occasionally dated, on this subject, they are certainly not.


It's more than a little discouraging to find a published author, with good intentions, who nonetheless doesn't understand the first thing about literary criticism and the construction of theme. That can be the only explanation for this blatant misrepresentation, considering that I can't imagine that Springer didn't read any SH stories before writing hers. It's upsetting. But the article is great otherwise.

I loved Encyclopedia Brown

I really enjoyed Encyclopedia Brown growing up, particularly because his best friend, her name was Sally if I recall correctly, was his body guard. He was the brains and she was the brawn, defending Encyclopedia from the wrath of the town bullies, and the stories were a lot of fun.

too bad about the Indians

I also enjoyed Encyclopedia Brown as a kid, though I remembered some of the 'solutions' being a bit of a stretch. As a new mama I picked up an EB book recently at a garage sale and reread it, and was appalled at the cartoony allusions (that were completely unnecessary plotwise to boot) to "Indians" that were littered throughout several stories, basically picked straight out of racist portrayals of aboriginal people. Maybe it was just that particular volume but I won't be saving any EB for my daughter after all. Loving this conversation!

I also loved Nancy Drew &

I also loved Nancy Drew & Encyclopedia Brown--though I never read the newer Nancy Drew Files books. (My mom had her collection of books from back when she was a kid). There also used to be a series called "Three Minute Mysteries" which were short and challenged you to figure out the answer (kind of like Encyclopedia Brown, but even shorter chapters).

There also was a series on Meg, the girl detective (by Holly Beth Walker) at my elementary library--out of print now, but Amazon and others have them from sellers. My daughter (age 11) isn't as enamored of mysteries as I was at her age, but she did like the Meg books.

Some other young heroines

I'm so glad you mention Enola Holmes, it is a favorite series of mine. I've also been revisiting Nancy Drew who I just love!

Other middle grade and YA contemporary sleuths I've enjoyed:

The Kari and Lucas Mysteries (especially The Mystery of the Third Lucretia) by Susan Runholt which are criminally under-appreciated.

The Death By... series by Linda Gerber

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach. Too bad there aren't more of these with the loveable Hero.

The Herculeah Jones Mysteries by Besty Byars

Contemporaries of Nancy Drew

I enjoyed the early Nancy Drew books when I was younger, but as the series grew more modern I lost interest. Luckily I found a few other series in the Nancy vein. Donna Parker, Ginny Gordon and Beverly Gray were all high school girls from small town America at the beginning of their respective series. They came from intact families with younger siblings and had a great deal of freedom and autonomy. Donna Parker ended up going off to live with an aunt and uncle in Hollywood, Beverly Gray moved to New York City and lived in an apartment with a bunch of other young women. I don't know what became of Ginny Gordon, I have never found any books of hers that go past high school.
There was also another fascinating example- Cherry Ames. She started out as a student nurse in a large hospital just before America got into World War II. Subsequent books had her being an Army nurse, a flight nurse, and other types of nurse. I haven't read them all (they're hard to find), but I love the idea!

Add new comment