Beyond Nancy Drew

-posted by Meghan

Many a little girl was introduced to mysteries by reading Nancy Drew.  There are books and doctoral thesis that explore the Nancy obsession and cultural phenomenon, but I’m not so much interested in the why.  All I know is that I was one of those little girls.  Nancy was beautiful, smart, determined, and though she was a teenager, she usually figured out things that baffled adults.  She had best friends who would do anything with and for her, and a dreamy boyfriend.  I read every single Nancy Drew (and still have them all), and  wanted more.  So I discovered Trixie Belden (which had been my Mom’s) and Cherry Ames (my Grandma bought them for Mom, but they were really for Grandma) in my Grandparent’s basement.  I read every girl detective I could get my hands on as a kid, and then when eBay appeared – whooo boy!  I got complete sets of books I had never even heard of.  So, in the spirit of a little holiday fun, I thought I’d introduce you to my favorites of the genre – for any young girls in your life (or for yourself!!!).


Nancy Drew – I loved Nancy as a kid, but I have to admit (blasphemy alert) that in re-reading her as an adult, she comes off a bit priggish.  And after you have read some of these other heroines (many from the same era), you have to admit that there is a little lacking in the romance department.  But what little girl didn’t dream of having titian hair, a little blue roadster, friends like George and Bess, a boyfriend like Ned Nickerson and a Dad like Mr. Drew.  Not to mention her clothing and travel allowance…  The first three Nancy Drew books were published in 1930, and the early editions are easily the best (though you periodically have to deal with some rather racist language), though for dedicated FON (fans of Nancy), even the cheesy 80’s Nancy Drew Files books are fun (I particularly love the ballet one) – though I draw the line at the new manga Nancy….

Re-publication status:never went out of publication, but were usually updated to fit the time.  Look for original editions or the 90’s re-print of the originals.


Trixie Belden – Trixie is younger than Nancy, sturdier, more tom-boyish, freckled – in other words, she’s more relatable.  She gets frustrated and stamps her feet and kind of whines a little, and often relies on the cooler heads in the Bobwhites (the not-so-secret club that she and best friend Honey Wheeler found with their brothers and best friends) to balance out her impetuous nature and stubborn streak.  Trixie was my favorite of the girl detectives.  I appreciated that I could relate to her (horrid temper, stocky legs  and all…), that she was closer to the age I was when I read these books for the first time, and that her family didn’t have gobs of money (it was Honey and her other friends who had the money that enabled their vacation mysteries).  I liked that they acknowledged that they weren’t detectives yet, but wanted to have a detective agency when they grew up.  And Jim Frayne may be the best boyfriend a girl detective ever had.  Trixie appeared on the scene in 1948, and the series continued to publish through 1986.

Re-publication status:Was out of print for about 15 years, and just a few years ago, Random House began reprinting, but UPDATING them.  The horror!  Look for the originals.


Donna Parker – Donna Parker is another girl who is still in high school, and still has her fair share of problems – many of which are school related – as she solves mysteries.  Unlike Trixie and Nancy, Donna doesn’t want to be a detective, it’s just that things keep happening and she figures them out because she is inquisitive.  Now, this is going to sounds contrary, after I said I loved Trixie because I could relate to her, but Donna was a little too relatable.  No rich friends.  No jewel thieves living in abandoned shacks in the woods.  She was pretty and sweet and her parents loved her and her little brother was a bother, but her life was pretty normal.  The books, written in the 50’s and 60’s are fun (especially the descriptions of parties and school that are retro-cool), but Donna doesn’t inspire a devoted following.  (Though Donna Parker On Her Own inspired me to make a “sandwich cake” – a loaf of bread turned into a huge savory sandwich and “frosted” with cream cheese.  Young Donna thought it was the height of sophistication, and young Meghan agreed, but quickly found it disgusting and inedible.  Deviled ham filling.  Ugh!  There’s a reason that stuff went out of style.)

Re-publication status: No current plans for re-publication.  But the books are pretty inexpensive and easy to find at used bookstores and on eBay.


Cherry Ames – Cherry Ames wasn’t a detective, she was a nurse.  I never wanted to be a nurse.  I faint at the sight of blood (literally – ask my husband about the time I took him to have his wisdom teeth out and he ended up carrying me to the car).  But somehow, Cherry made me want to be a detective/nurse.  She solved problems and caught criminals, all while being pretty, cheerful, fresh-faced (she is called Cherry because her cheeks are so red – in fact, in an exchange I can still remember verbatim – a doctor at her nursing school scolds her and instructs her to wipe the “paint” off her face, and she has to admit that she can’t as it is her natural color) tender and ministering.  What’s not to love?  The books were written during the early days of  World War II to encourage girls to go into nursing school.  I’m afraid it might have worked on me, which would have been a bad thing (for me, and patients everywhere!).

Re-publication status: Springer Publishing began re-publishing the series in 2005.  So far, 20 of the 27 original books have been re-published.


Vicki Barr – Talk about a time capsule!  That’s why I love this series.  Vicki wants to be a stewardess.  Not a flight attendant, a stewardess.  But she’s not sure they’ll take her.  She’s petite.  She’s young.  She’s inexperienced.  But she’s determined, and they end up taking her into the training program.  Then the fun starts, and she moves to New York City from her small town, and starts flying all over the world, solving problems, helping people, and making men fall in love with her.  One of my favorite passages from the first book is when they are deciding whether or not she has what it takes, and they tell her candidly that she is pretty, which a stewardess must be, but is she too delicate?  It’s good that she’s thin – there is a weight limit for the girls, after all – but is she too fragile to handle an emergency?  Turns out, she’s not as fragile as she looks…

Re-publication status: no current plans.


Beverly Gray – I actually discovered Beverly Gray before Nancy or Trixie.   I think I had probably read a few Bobbsey Twins, and maybe a Honey Bunch or two, but Beverly Gray was my first girl detective.  I found a novel in a box of old books in the barn of our house in New England.  I didn’t think of her as a detective – she was a journalist, who happened to solve mysteries as she went after a story.  But I loved her.  She had all the elements: beautiful, independent, career girl, talented, stubborn, traveled, made men crazy about her... What little girl, who loved to read and write, wouldn’t want to be her?  The books are contemporaries of Nancy, yet somehow Beverly feels much more sophisticated. 

Re-publication status: No current plans.  It’s a shame.  Several of the books are relatively available in the usual used places, but if you can find a copy of Beverly Gray at the World’s Fair, please give me a call!  Those are rare, and it’s the one of the series I’m missing!


Peggy Lane – She’s not a detective.  Not a nurse, stewardess, school girl shamus or reporter.  Peggy is an actress!  And since that was what I wanted to be, I loved these books.  Peggy went from student actor, to summer stock, Hollywood, London, Paris and Rome.  She was pretty and talented and also rather human.  These weren’t the “kidnappers in the wood” type mysteries, rather small problems that related to her life or her friends that she had to solve (though once or twice danger did lurk…).  The series was written in the 60’s, and the thirty year lapse between the earlier girl detectives and Peggy is quite interesting.

Re-publication status: No current plans.


Bobs, Girl Detective – Bobs wasn’t a series.  This stand alone novel was written in 1928 (preceding Nancy by 2 years) and is lots of fun.  Bobs and her sisters are debutantes who suddenly become penniless orphans.  Of the sisters, only Bobs relishes the opportunity to roll up her sleeves and get to work.  She fashions herself a “girl detective” (perhaps the first official one to appear in print), and though her cases are solved despite, rather than because of, her involvement, and she trades in her work for marriage at the end, she sets the stage for the girls that follow…  If you can get a hold of it, it’s a charming period piece.

Re-publication status:Republish?  Forget about it.  If I didn’t own a copy (that I found in the same moldy box as my first Beverly Gray book), I don’t think I’d know it existed.  You can find copies on eBay, but they’re (usually) not cheap…


You’ll notice that some very popular heroines are missing.  (Judy Bolton, The Dana Girls, for instance…).  I said this is a list of my favorites, and for whatever reason, they never grabbed my imagination.  What were your favorites?


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