Girl Sleuths: Defying Expectations Since 1930 (At Least)

Editor's Note:

Erica Wright is a senior editor at Guernica magazine. She is most recently the author of The Granite Moth. For our Under the Influence series, in which authors reflect on their literary influences, Wright looks to the inspiration of girl sleuths, from Veronica Mars to Nancy Drew.

“Dear Seventeen, how can I tell if the really cute boy in my class has a crush on me? No, strike that. Dear Seventeen, how can I tell if the really cute boy in my class murdered his sister?”—Veronica Mars, “Weapons of Class Destruction”

The least believable part of my favorite novel is that smart, willful, independent Jane Eyre fails to solve the madwoman mystery. Wouldn’t she at least be tempted to sneak up to that attic, perhaps when Mr. Rochester is out gallivanting? Of course, my perception of teenagers was skewed by the time I got to the Brontës because I was already familiar with the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene. I knew another eighteen-year-old—Nancy Drew—would get to the bottom of the cackling laugh, bedroom fire, and injured visitor.

My small hometown didn’t have a library, but the next town over had a friendly place with a small metal rack of YA titles. There were Harlequin Teen and Baby-Sitters Club novels, but Nancy Drew took up a lot of the inventory. So that’s what I read, always feeling a bit more drawn to tomboy George than the protagonist. To be honest, I didn’t think about Nancy as any kind of influence until I started binge-watching Veronica Mars. That’s when I realized how satisfying it is when an unflappable, take-no-names girl confronts the harsh realities of our world, with pals but without apology.

Veronica and Nancy aren’t exactly long lost twins. Nancy might have been scandalized by Veronica, and Veronica surely would have envied Nancy’s no-school lifestyle. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to find parallels between the characters. For starters, they look alike—small, blonde, and blue-eyed—although Veronica prefers punk to prom-ready. They file away clues to be retrieved at the crucial moment. And at least in 1930 version of The Secret of the Old Clock, Nancy delights, Veronica-style, in sneaks getting their comeuppance.

While the word “relatable” has a bit of a tarnished reputation, one glance at soaring YA sales indicates how much young people want to read about other young people, especially if they’re out to save the world. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology earlier this year even found that those who read the Harry Potter novels were less likely to be prejudiced against marginalized groups. As we get older, our tastes change of course. If we’re lucky and conscientious, not only do we enjoy diverse and unexpected perspectives, we seek them out. But there’s something about the appeal of a plucky young P.I. that I just can’t shake. For all of my favorite mysteries — from Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt series to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American I find I can recall more about the whos than the whats.

When I started writing my first mystery novel, the character of Kathleen Stone came before the setting, murder, and villain. In her twenties but not quite through growing up, Kat favors different aliases—including a teenage boy named Keith. She swaps identities like others swap shoes, but I can still see how a couple of sure-of-themselves girl sleuths lead to her creation. And I bet that if they could ever meet through some trick of converging fictional worlds, Nancy, Veronica, and Kat would all be friends.

Read more from authors on influence here.