I was never cool enough to be a kid detective. To be a kid detective, you had to be willing to break the rules, sneak around, lie to your parents, spy, snoop, and hang out in the general vicinity of suspicious, unseemly characters. While I was home practicing piano and pretending I didn’t care about Barbies anymore, kid detectives were out finding missing skateboards and whistle-blowing dangerous bake sales. Since I couldn’t live that life, I had to be content to read about it instead. My picks for the greatest (and only?) kid detectives of all time:
Created by the same fellow who came up with The Hardy Boys (see below), Nancy is one of the oldest and most famous of all kid detectives. When the series was first published, she was 16, but in later versions her age was changed to 18. Her character was changed a bit as well – in earlier versions, she was even more outspoken and bold than in the revised editions. That said, in any of her books it’s clear Nancy Drew is one of the coolest kid detectives around. She’s the complete package: beautiful, talented, whip-smart, intuitive, and brave. Given that these books were first written in the 1930s, it’s pretty amazing that such a female character not only existed but was popular! Her fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness tempers the fact that she pretty much does what she want when she wants to do it. As a chicken little pre-teen, it was freeing to live vicariously through this independent girl. Who am I kidding, she still inspires me and so many others to this day.
The Hardy Boys
Because The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are inextricably linked, I feel like most people read either one or the other (usually divided along gender lines). So while Nancy has my heart, I still feel the need to acknowledge the powerful influence these Boys had as kid detectives. Similar to Nancy Drew and her attorney father, many of the mysteries the Hardy Boys tackled were cases they learned about through their father, a detective. Another kid detective trope they share: all-American hometowns in which a surprising number of major crimes occur. What makes the Hardy Boys less cool than our gal Nancy is the fact that their personalities weren’t very distinct. Other than one of them having blond hair and the other having brown, they were pretty much interchangeable, and they certainly weren’t shattering gender barriers the way feisty Nancy arguably did. But they were adventurous and fearless and probably inspired a lot of wannabe boy crime-fighters.
Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy is one of my all time favorite kid detectives. Only eleven years old, she wants to be a writer and a spy and taught me pretty much everything I know about kid detective-ing. Famous for carrying a notebook in which she writes down all her thoughts and observations, Harriet takes a “spy route” home from school every day from which she observes her classmates, neighbors, and friends to see if they’re up to anything suspicious. In the original novel, Harriet’s notebook is discovered and everyone in school hates her for what she wrote about them – including her best friends. Harriet is lonely and miserable but won’t back down, continuing to spy and planning crazy revenge fantasies. I love that even faced with absolute social isolation, she still wants to write and spy and considers it all worth it for the sake of following her dreams. I’m still hoping to be as cool as she is one day.
Interestingly, the Encyclopedia Brown books were composed of short story mysteries as opposed to one, long, overarching mystery. Each one was only a few pages and formatted as to encourage the reader to try to solve the case along with Encyclopedia. If you read closely enough, you could usually hope to discern some logical or factual inaccuracy that would lead to the answer. Near the end of each story, Encyclopedia would close his eyes and concentrate, then ask a single question that would solve the case for him. The actual solutions were at the back of the book in an “Answers” section, allowing readers to take as long as they needed to figure things out. The author, Donald Sobol, also wrote this really awesome but way-less-famous book called Two-Minute Mysteries that follows a similar format. What made Encyclopedia special was sheer intelligence. He also had the help of an equally smart lady friend named Sally Kimball. And, yes, their pre-teen sexual tension lit up the page.
I’ve already expressed my deep love for this series, but really, it can’t be overstated. Cam is a fifth grader with a very special talent: a photographic memory. All she has to do is close her eyes and say “Click” (it’s all about the sound effects) and she’ll take a mental picture of whatever is in front of her. Surprise, surprise, it comes in handy when it’s time to solve local mysteries. Like the other kids on this list, Cam is spunky, gutsy, and exceedingly clever. And thanks to her I totally grew up thinking I could have a photographic memory too, if only I just practiced enough.
What made reading about these kid detectives so enjoyable was that they were doing all the things kids were never supposed to do… and it always paid off. Instead of being punished or yelled at for sneaking out, meddling in grown-up affairs, or eavesdropping, they were congratulated, celebrated, and rewarded. They were living complicated, independent lives while I was still listening to my parents when they said my bedtime should correspond to my age (8PM when I was eight, and so on). And of course, as an aspiring writer, by reading these books I was also learning to make careful observations, take notes, and question everything. The lessons I learned from these kid detectives are with me to this day, deeply a part of me, far beyond a simple Pretty Little Liars addiction and the fact that I find Law & Order: SVU strangely soothing. Click!