I was recently in the Southold library Book Cottage and coughed up a dollar for a copy of “The Haunted Bridge” by Carolyn Keene. I presented it to my wife, who grinned. It’s No. 15 of the Nancy Drew mystery stories, a series that grew in number to 50. Fully 20 of these titles begin with either “The Clue of … ” or “The Mystery of …”, the most provocative being “The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.” The dogged Nancy solved all 50; my equally determined wife has read them all.
Aside from Nancy, my knowledge of female detectives was slight — Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta, Miss Marple, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and a few others being the extent of it. Curious, I surrendered to Google and found — are you ready for this? — a list so long that I stopped counting at 100 and had only arrived at the letter D. There must be 1,000 high-heeled gumshoes — not movie or TV characters, but book ladies — chasing bad guys, shooting serial killers and generally kicking butt. I started skimming the list.
In 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle created Irene Adler, an opera singer who solved crimes (and appeared in five Sherlock Holmes movies). Mary Roberts Reinhart, in 1914, brought Hilda Adams to life, in 1922 Agatha Christie dreamed up Tuppence Beresford and in 1937 Rex Stout introduced Theolinda “Dol” Bonner in a Nero Wolfe story. And I liked rediscovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote “The Thin Man,” featuring Nora Charles and what’s-his-name. Book first, then the movie.
As I streamed along it was entertaining to see how many writers gave unusual “regular jobs” to their crime chasers. I was wowed by Jessie Arnold, a champion dog-sled racer in Alaska, and Smokey Branton, an ex-stripper. There were nine different nuns (armed with three-foot oak pointers?). There was Lily Bard, a cleaning woman and karate expert from Shakespeare, Ark., and Natalie Brand, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Maine. I fell for Stella Crown immediately, a dairy farmer and biker — udder chaos meets road rage. Leading the pack, albeit near the alphabet’s end, stands Bubbles Yablonsky, beautician.
Another — dare I say — gimmick is the giving of arresting first names to these ladies. Bubbles? Sure. Tuppence? Why not. And Cat, and China, and Temperance and Seychelles, a tugboat captain. Are any of these many detectives gathering clues (or dust) in the Book Cottage? You’ll have to open your own investigation and do your own legwork. Kingsley Amis once said he wanted only to read books that begin, “A shot rang out.” He didn’t stipulate the gender of the trench-coated person who ambled in and cleaned up the mess.
Here’s a test for you. You have a two-volume encyclopedia in your bookcase. Each volume is 2 3/8 inches thick, the binding boards are all one-eighth of an inch. A bookworm starts eating its way through, starting on the first page of Volume 1 and chomping through to the last page of Volume 2. How far would you say he traveled? Send me your answers and we’ll post the results.
And once again, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].