Schoolgirl Detectives






Last week on the blog I did a post on Val McDermid’s Report for Murder, and quoted these lines from the 1987 book:

‘If we can get people to talk to us, maybe we can find out things the police have missed. I know it all sounds a bit School Friend and Girl’s Crystal stuff, but perhaps we can just pull something off. After all, we’re starting from a different premise.’

The ‘sleuths’ here are a reporter and a writer, trying to clear the name of their friend, who has been accused of murder. One of them was at school with the accused, the other met her at university.

They ARE

The Silent Three



all grown up. This was a comic strip that ran in the School Friend magazine from 1950 to 1963. The school was St Kit’s, and the girls solved crimes, righted injustices, and dressed up in fetching robes. AND – no-one knew who they were.

In the archetypal ‘Only the Silent Three Could Help Her’ story, an unjustly blamed maid had to nail an anonymous letter to a tree to get them to take on her case.



The Silent Three then had a second life: the Guardian newspaper for years ran an iconic, legendary weekly strip for grown ups, by Posy Simmonds,  about the lives of North London lefties – academics, social workers, unruly teenagers, non-politically correct friends. It was full of excruciating dinner parties, moral dilemmas, parenting problems, it was tremendously funny and wince-makingly recognizable. And - it was originally called The Silent Three of St Botolph’s. That logo was dropped after a while, but presumably the idea was that those brave young schoolgirls had grown up and were now living quite a different life, and trying to solve other kinds of problems.




The world of those original schoolgirl magazines was quite extraordinary – goodness knows how our picture of life was skewed in the 1960s and 1970s by this wild mishmash of crime at schools, ballet and ponies, running away to the circus, Ruritanian princesses, injustices, and endless lost parents, evil aunties and uncles, adoption and orphanages. I can only contemplate it, rather aghast, now.

Schoolgirl detectives were probably one of the most straightforward features. Always boarding school, and really never much doubt as to who were the goodies and who were the baddies. And that has also been true of the many books featuring schoolgirl detectives.

Robin Stevens is writing a series now about schoolgirl sleuths, quite in that world. When I looked at Murder Most Unladylike, the first one, I said this:

The author says that she loves Agatha Christie, who of course wrote the wonderful Cat Among The Pigeons [as referenced in the McDermid book], set in a girls’ boarding school. There are also echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, the Enid Blyton school stories set at Malory Towers and St Clare’s, and Antonia Forest’s school stories. There is even a group of girls called The Marys, which for some of us means the girls' magazine Bunty, and the  comic strip The Four Marys. (Which went on for years – my daughter, 2nd generation Bunty reader, asked me once how old they were supposed to be. ‘They must be 104 at least’, I replied).

One of my favourite children’s books of all time is called

The Clue in the Castle, by Joyce Bevins Webb

it is a very obscure book, but when I wrote about it a few years ago it became one of my most successful blogposts. (Also one of my all-time favourites.) And occasionally still a fellow-reader discovers it via the joys of the internet. (You can hear them thinking 'no-one else can possibly have read this book, there will be nothing on the Internet - Oh!! Look!') It combines crime and schoolstory – my two favourite genres. I strongly recommend both book and blogpost, in all modesty. Castle Monastery School is the one you most want to have attended, believe me. Crime opportunities of the most interesting and unexpected kind, a beautiful but terrifying and cruel games mistress (in red sweater, below), and a nice uniform (also below). And a secret passage.


There were, of course, schoolBOY detectives, though my gut feeling is that these were less common. And of course we have featured them here – thanks solely to a misunderstanding with my friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. See The Mystery of the Missing Book by Trevor Burgess here. (Still waiting for your review, John.)




In fact most straight school stories, and believe me I have read an awful lot of them, feature a mystery of some kind, and a spot of sleuthing. (Mary Lou and the stolen pen in Malory Towers!) Also thriller-ish adventures that even Victor Canning might balk at. Look at the unimprovable Dimsie Goes to School by Dorita Fairlie Bruce. I offer you these lines:

Daphne began telling Dimsie the tale of how Sylvia Drummond had rescued Jean Gordon from the Hun spies when Westover was a naval base. 
‘How perfectly ripping!’ cried Dimsie, with shining eyes. ‘Sylvia was lucky to get the chance.’

The Ballet School Mystery by Constance B White combines three key genres - ballet, boarding school, crime – but it must be said that although this again was one of my all-time most popular posts, the topic that got everyone going was how ballerinas kept their tights up – a different kind of mystery obviously.



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I think I am just touching the surface here on this question of schoolgirl (or schoolboy) sleuths - I’m sure there are more on my blog in fact. It is the kind of topic where I think my readers are going to have a lot to offer – please add your favourites in the comments.



















Comments

  1. What a fabulous topic, Moira! And you give such good examples, too. Your post made me think of Ursula Nordstrom's The Secret Language, which takes place in a girls' boarding school. I read it as a child and loved it. It isn't, admittedly, about crime as about friendship and coming of age. But I thought of it right away.

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    1. Thanks Margot, and I will look up the book you mention, which I have never come across. I have always loved school stories, and always will. All of them...

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  2. Goodness knows! And there were no boys.

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    1. I suppose someone, somewhere must have written a book set in a co-ed boarding school, but I can't think of a single one.

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  3. I remember these - there was always a girl called Naomi who was an Indian Princess and in the end she inevitably brought her elephant to school. The girls were always called Betty or Judy, and the baddie was generally a girl called Sybil who was a swot and sneaked on the girls if given half a chance. I don't think that they did very much studying as they were always dressing up as hooded friars and chasing criminals down secret passages.

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    1. Absolutely. The names are such a giveaway aren't they, and as you say there were certain standard ones. The 'foreign' pupil jokes would go down very badly today.

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  4. Gosh, I've read every book you mention here, except the boys' one. I read School Friend as a child and Posy as an adult. My daughter and I can 'talk Posy', always knowing exactly what the other means. I've reviewed The Clue in the Castle myself: killing! I've loved Wells & Wong since reading the first book; Robin Stevens really nailed it.

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    1. I just had to go and read your post on Clue in the Castle - so great to find another fan. As you say, one of the strangest books ever. And so glad we share so many tastes.

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  5. It is wonderful that you have all these memories of these books and still enjoy them. I wish I could remember what I read as a child. I did read a lot... but that is all I remember.

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    1. It's funny what we forget and we remember - I really do remember childhood books, but there are other things that have gone from my head...

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  6. The only thing that comes close is Flavia (that name always reminds me of a part of a woman's anatomy - don't ask) de Luce and the books by Alan Bradley, not that I've read any.

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    1. I wasn't expecting you to have read many of these - but the revered School for Scumbags did jump to mind when I was thinking about schoolboys!

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  7. My niece is very keen on the Murder Most Unladylike series which features schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.
    I read The Otterbury Incident when I was young, (by C Day Lewis rather than Nicolas Blake, interestingly) but can't remember much about it, except I think they were grammar schoolboy sleuths rather than at boarding school.
    I can't not mention Jennings and Darbyshire's attempt at writing detective fiction - "Flixton Slick, Super Sleuth" as it makes me laugh every time I read it.

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    1. Oh yes, I'd forgotten the Otterbury Incident, I loved that book. They were definitely local boys at day school, you are right.
      And Jennings: of course. I just tried to say the name and there it was, Slooper Sleuth. Was it for the school magazine they were making with the printing set? Buckeridge was the funniest writer...

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