Kid Detectives: The Young Crime-Solving Protégés
Encyclopedia Brown possess a skill many of us wish we had or wish we were better at — knowing just about everything. If I had his skills, just imagine how good I would be at a game of trivia. Although he may be a fictional character, he inspires young readers to think outside the box to solve crimes. He teaches the importance of attention to detail, listening and problem solving in a way that engages young readers and almost forces them to finish the book.
To honor the 50th anniversary of the Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective series written by Donald J. Sobol, I will discuss the top five greatest kid detectives in literature history. They help bring order back to this world and restore the justice system. Each one of these young masterminds helps solve crime and helps answer the questions, “whodunnit?”
Nancy was my hero at a young age. She was everything I wanted to be — smart, immensely wealthy, and above all, brave. In the original series printed in 1930, Nancy is a 16-year old who has already graduated from high school. She has a father who is a lawyer and his cases are usually her inspiration for her mysteries. Her resourcefulness and independence help her solve crimes. She works on crimes from burglary, to kidnappings and jewel theft.
The classic series, starting in 1930 and written by several authors under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, consists of the original 56 Grosset & Dunlap hardback books from The Secret of the Old Clock to The Thirteenth Pearl. Since then, Nancy has reemerged in The File Series, featuring a more modernized Nancy, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Super Mysteries, where Nancy teams up with Frank and Joe, The On-Campus Series, where Nancy goes to college, and many more different series. In my opinion, the classic Nancy Drew series are the most powerful reads compared to the attempts at modernizing Nancy’s character, and surpassingly better than the Hollywood on-screen attempt in the 2007 flick Nancy Drew, featuring Emma Roberts. Yet, her feisty character has survived over eight decades and has not only influence other female mystery novels such as The Dana Girls, and the Kay Tracey series, but has encouraged young girls to be brave and intuitive.
The original detectives that inspired the Nancy Drew series, The Hardy Boys, consisted of amateur detective teen brothers, Joe and Frank Hardy. The series was created in 1927 by Edward Stratemeyer, the same creator of Nancy Drew, and also employed the talent of several authors under the pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon. Much like Nancy Drew, the brothers employ the help of their father, detective Fenton Hardy, to get new cases. They are described as lucky, clever, and always find themselves in some sort of danger. The brothers deal with more dangerous cases than Nancy Drew, including murder, drug peddling and even medical malpractice.
Originally, the boys were depicted as middle class cynicals who worked behind the backs of law enforcement to solve crimes. The police did not have a good reputation in the early books. In attempts to modernize the series, the boys suddenly became wealthy, law-abiding studs. Large wording was removed, diversity was stripped, and pages were cut. Much like my opinion on the Nancy Drew alterations, the stories were much better when they were authentic and untouched.
Turtle Wexler from The Westing Game
One of my favorite novels growing up was The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, a complex puzzle of a book that leads you through the lives of the sixteen Westing heirs. Tabitha-Ruth Wexler, aka Turtle, is the 13-year old daughter of Grace and Jake Wexler, whom, along with other tenants in their high-rise apartment building, are curiously named as heirs after the wealthy Sam Westing dies. At the reading of Mr. Westing’s will, it is revealed that he was murdered and one of the heirs is the culprit. The heirs are split into teams and given clues to help solve the murder — all part of the “Westing Game.”
Turtle is the only one of the Westing heirs to solve the mystery. Unlike most kid detectives, she mainly works alone to solve this mystery. She uses the small amount of clues given, her determination and cleverness to solve the puzzle that none of the other heirs could.
I learned what photographic memory meant from reading the Cam Jansen mystery series, created in 1981 by David A. Adler, and ever since, I envy the ability to have endless and accurate memory like Cam. Jennifer “Cam” Jansen, goes by Cam for her camera-like memory. She enlists the help of her best friend Eric Shelton to help solve low-danger crimes, including missing puppies and stolen baseballs. Her trick is that she closes her eyes and says “click” at various crime scenes, mimicking the noise of a camera, in order to memorize the scene in front of her. Later in each story, she recalls the “photos” stored in her memory to help solve each crime.
The Cam Jansen character was based on an elementary school classmate of Adler's who was supposedly had a photographic memory. Adler, with the experience as a teacher, created these books to be read by transitional readers and to be used in the classroom.
Leroy, known as Encyclopedia because he has a vast knowledge on everything, outdid the majority of us by owning his own business at the age of ten. His slogan for his neighborhood crime-solving business is “no case too small, 25 cents per day plus expenses.” He enlists the help of his friend Sally Kimball, his very own miniature Dr. Watson, to solve simple neighborhood crimes. The villain, in most cases is the town villain, Bugs Meany. He also uses a similar style to solving crimes as Cam Jansen—he closes his eyes, thinks deeply, and then asks one simple question which usually leads to him solving the case. The format of each story is solve-it-yourself—at the end of each story, readers are encouraged to look at the evidence and make a guess on whodunnit. They then can turn to the back of the book and the solution is revealed.
This mystery series by Donald J. Sobol have been published for 50 years and have never been out of print. The series spawned a comic strip, TV series, and now a feature film. From December 1978, to September 1980, Encyclopedia Brown was a daily and Sunday comic strip and in the summer of 2013, Warner Bros adapted the books into a feature film which is now in development. But how they are going to take this solve-it-yourself format and turn it into a movie is a mystery in itself.
Kate Voss is an entertainment blogger. Her all-time favorite book growing up was The Westing Game, and she continues to have a passion for mystery novels. She lives and works in Chicago.