I never read Nancy Drew until my daughter got a haircut a couple of years ago that prompted people to say she looked like the famous sleuth. But that doesn’t mean I never went through the girl detective phase as a kid. I actually did it more than once. Linda Craig’s curiously crime-ridden ranch filled my first and second grade years. Trixie Belden’s curiously crime-ridden quaint bedroom community took up a stretch of fifth. In third grade there was also a bunch of kid detectives with a house trailer hideout in a junk yard, but I think they were all boys. In any case, I’m not new to girl detective books, even though it has been a long time since I immersed myself in one.
Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus (well-known for slightly heavier fare) has all the necessary ingredients of a great girl detective book:
- inquisitive girl who is competent, yet reckless (emancipated teen ‘I’m not a detective, but I play one on TV’ is genius)
- curiously crime-filled quaint, rural environment (remote lakeside summer cabin community where old people are dropping like flies – but not of old age)
- supportive but uninvolved parental figures (two crazy old aunties who spend half the book in jail)
- Sidekicks (hot guy keeps popping up every time she needs a rescue; little kid who’s been doing some snooping of his own)
The primary mystery is neatly solved in a danger and action-filled climax, but dang it! The bad guy got away. And there’s still one lingering question… Enchantment Lake is a great set-up for a new generation of girl-sleuth mysteries (it’s already branded “A Northwoods Mystery”).
When I finally did read Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, I was grossed out by “Carol Keene’s” mansplaining of the character. High school graduate with no job and no plans for college doesn’t even keep house for her dad because they have a maid, and we’re supposed to believe she is strong and independent because she competently drives her car around rural roads all day without even getting tired? Gag. Maybe that passed for feminism in the 30’s, but I don’t want my kids reading it.
It was a running joke in the Trixie Belden series that she was confused by words with more two syllables but still seemed to stumble on the solutions to all these mysteries before anyone else could figure them out. Maybe that was supposed to illustrate different kinds of intelligence but I read it as a dumb blond story, and I’m pretty sure my girls would, too.
Enchantment Lake‘s Francie is a much more modern character. An orphan, estranged from her family and living in New York, she works desperately to support herself by her acting so that she can remain independent of her stern grandfather, who controls her trust fund. (I’ve never met anyone with a trust fund who ever worked harder than walking to the minimart to buy cigarettes, but suspension of disbelief is part of any amateur detective story.) Her distinctive hair makes her look older than her age, and whenever she doesn’t know what to do, she falls back on her TV acting experience, literally faking it till she makes it.
That’s not to say the book is perfect. Francie has an undiagnosed case of ADHD that makes Percy Jackson look like a scholar. At one point she finds herself on a boat in the lake in a boat. He seems to be confessing to the murders, and she’s afraid he might kill her, but she’s not really paying attention to what he says because she’s thinking about the casting agents who might be at the party she’s missing on shore. I know actors are supposed to be self-absorbed, but not getting murdered seems like it would suit one’s self-interest better than worrying about audition opportunities.
It also seemed like she jumped to a few conclusions that should have been wrong, but weren’t.
“You have a shovel; the bad guy had a shovel; you must be in on the crime.”
This is where I am at a disadvantage in having done the bulk of my girl-detective-reading decades ago. Are my criticisms against the book or the genre? I vaguely remember Trixie Belden jumping to conclusions, and stumbling on the real clues while barking up the wrong tree; or finding real clues and misinterpreting them. Was Preus was playing with the genre tropes in the way her heroine ignored some clues while imagining others? Or was she playing by the rules?
Either way, I appreciate a genuinely independent heroine, even with her failings in logic, and I appreciate that she is solving high-stakes mysteries. In addition to the people whose lives were in danger, Francie’s case has environmental elements as well. By saving the lives of the old folks, she also saves the forest and some archaeological treasures. I’ll take that over missing wills any day.
Enchantment Lake: A Northwoods Mystery
University of Minnesota Press