When I was a child I loved reading mystery novels. My older sisters passed along their copies of Nancy Drew and I was drawn to her sleuthing skills and bold behavior. I devoured The Secret of the Old Clock, The Secret in the Old Attic, and many others. My favorite was The Hidden Staircase. Growing up I lived in a rambling old house in Wake Forest, North Carolina. We had a closet under our long rickety staircase where my mother stored her cleaning supplies. I used to slip into the closet sometimes with a flashlight, determined to find something secret. Maybe a door to another room. Maybe, a hidden staircase. Usually I just found rags smelling sweetly of furniture polish.
I dreamed of mysteries, of secrets, of visitors coming to our house in disguise. The preacher is really an escaped criminal. My piano teacher has bodies buried in her backyard.
But Nancy Drew was just too adult for me. She was too prim, even in all of her bossiness. When I looked at the pictures of her on the front covers of her books they reminded me of my older sisters or of their friends. She wore dresses and pumps and her hair was always coiffed in a saucy up-wave with nary a strand out of place. She must have used hairspray. Adult women used hairspray. I couldn’t really see myself as Nancy Drew. She was too smart, too rich, too not me.
I preferred Trixie Belden. She lived on a farm and was rough and tumble wearing jeans and a garment known as a “halter top” which I had never seen before in my life, except on the covers of the books. Trixie had tousled hair and an upturned nose, which, by the way, she followed when she solved a crime. No prissy deduction for Trixie. She worked on hunches.
Trixie was bad at math . . . like me. She had a little brother who was adorable and annoying all at once . . . like me. She cultivated a friendship with the poor-little-rich girl, Honey Wheeler, who had long silky hair that naturally flipped up at the ends (not like the hairspray-slicked Miss Drew, who I thought I might be when I grew up, but not now).
Trixie and her crew went in search of adventure—poking their noses where they didn’t belong—searching through abandoned houses and turning up secrets. The Gatehouse Mystery was my favorite. As the blurb announces: “When Trixie and Honey explore an abandoned gatehouse, they discover more than dust and spider webs. Stuck in the dirt floor is a huge diamond! Could a ring of jewel thieves be hiding out in Sleepyside?” Well, could it? Let’s find out! Because, of course, that’s what thirteen-year-old girls do in Trixie Belden world. I enjoyed staring at the cover. There was Trixie in her little shorts and halter top (which frankly, just looked like the top to a two-piece swimsuit, which my mother would not have let me wear, even though at ten-years-old there wasn’t much for the top to cover.) Trixie is carrying a scythe in one hand and a shovel in the other. A damn scythe! She wasn’t messing around, that Trixie. She was going to weed-whack her way to the truth.
What else were they supposed to do on those long summer days? What else was I supposed to do? I had a friend named Donna who was also a Trixie Belden fan. We decided to create our own sleuthing agency, and we went in search of secrets. There were plenty of abandoned houses in our sleepy town. Perhaps they weren’t abandoned. My mother later scolded me that they were still owned by somebody somewhere, and when I went in to do my sleuthing I was trespassing. I was breaking the law! “Besides,” she continued, “those old houses are dangerous. The floor boards could give way or you could get bitten by a snake!”
Donna and I decided we needed to carry an emergency first-aid kit with us, in light of my mother’s warning. We were sensible sleuthers. We each found an old eye-glasses case (back in the day they were hard plastic with a snap closure) and we filled the case with a razor—in case we were bitten by a snake—gauze—to create a tourniquet (as if we’d know what to do), a band-aid for whatever cut we might get falling through the floor, and a dime. The dime was our last-resort-safety measure. We needed the dime to call home, in case we got lost or arrested or something.
The summer of my tenth year, the summer of Trixie Belden, was a good summer. Donna and I explored any number of old houses. We didn’t fall through any floors, and we didn’t find any skeletons or old clocks with secrets. But we had fun.
Photo by Ramona Zepeda on Unsplash
Trixie Belden stories sound like rollicking good fun! I wish my local library had more of them when I was kid. After the pandemic, I hope to frequent used bookstores again, so I’ll look for Trixie.
When I was around ten, my favorite babysitter lent me her complete set of Nancy Drew. A gold mine of adventure! I loved Nancy’s “dark-blue convertible” with which she sped on country roads. I was awed by her fabulous ability to do all kinds of sports–boating, skating, golf–no problem! I envied that she had “luncheons” (never just lunch) at home prepared by housekeeper Hannah Gruen.
But, I agree, Nancy was too perfect for me to identify with. I still remember being struck with the line in Secret of the Old Clock, “Nancy was too discreet to engage in gossip with the saleswoman.” Oh, c’mon, Nancy! Luckily, the narrator does continue, “But she was interested and excited about the information.”
Maybe Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and other flawed detectives were a response to the perfection of Nancy Drew? Kinsey is smart and brave, and I love her super basic wardrobing.
I re-read Secret of the Old Clock some years back. I enjoyed the memory of how much fun the books were for me as a kid.
When I read the 1930 original, I was shocked at the explicit racism. Glad the series was revised in the 1950s.
Such a fun post, Rebecca! You bring out the detective in us all.
I wish I lived near you in my youth! I also loved mysteries at that age and went from the Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew and then to the Hardy Boys books. But I never discovered the Trixie Belden series! Alas, perhaps I need to read those to my grandchildren. Thanks for the walk down memory lane as well as the wonderful description of your times with Donna.
We would have had fun exploring those old houses with our handy first-aid kit! I never got around to reading the Bobbsey Twins. I think I read whatever my older sisters had on their shelves! All of my sisters were great readers! And they past the love of literature down to me.
Good point about Kinsey Milhone! And Sarah Paratesky’s V.I.Warshawski also has her issues (along with beautiful silk blouses!) I think that’s why I like them. Kirino Natsuo’s initial foray into detective fiction featured a similar kind of “hard-boiled” protagonist, Murano Miro. I like Amanda Seaman’s study Bodies of Evidence. She introduces English-language readers to a number of Japanese women mystery-fiction writers.