From Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder: Girl detectives are the ultimate underdog

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Veronica Mars always had a quippy comeback.
Veronica Mars always had a quippy comeback. Credit: Warner Bros

Despite the author’s name that appeared on the front cover of Nancy Drew books — Carolyn Keene — the intrepid girl detective was the brainchild of a man.

Edward Stratemeyer was the publisher of the Hardy Boys books and in 1930, three years after the successful debut of the sleuthing brothers, he wanted a counterpart for all those girl consumers.

Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym for a collective of ghostwriters, most of them women, that Stratemeyer hired to pen the stories of derring-do adventure and crime-solving, led by Nancy, a whip-smart 16-year-old girl who was feisty with an independent streak born of losing her mother as a child.

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She and her cousins, the feminine Bess and tomboy George, disrupted schemes and uncovered wrongdoing. Her boyfriend Ned, ever chaste, would sometimes come along. She has foiled international jewel thieves, solved the disappearance of a pottery expert and taken down art smugglers.

Nancy Drew wasn’t the first female sleuth in pop culture — there was the Girl Detective silent shorts from 1915, although that title character was actually a 20-something policewoman — but she became synonymous with an archetype that has endured since.

Emma Roberts as one screen version of Nancy Drew.
Emma Roberts as one screen version of Nancy Drew. Credit: Warner Bros

Say the name “Nancy Drew” and what immediately springs to mind is a teenage girl who said she was sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. But never underestimate her, because she’ll put you in handcuffs.

Enter A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, a British series in which the protagonist, a highschooler named Pip, is literally warned off by a man, “A word to the wise, I’ve heard you’re a bit of a nosy parker, you know what happens to nosy parkers, don’t you?”.

Adapted from a best-selling young adult book by Holly Jackson, the BBC series (it streams in Australia on Stan) follows 17-year-old Pip’s investigations into the deaths of two kids at her school five years prior. She even takes it on as a school project.

Pip’s legwork looks a little different from Nancy Drew’s – she trawls through Instagram, paying special attention to what people choose to reveal about themselves, and maybe aren’t aware that they have, and bails up people with pesky questions about an event they would rather not remember.

She is a nuisance, but she’s also onto something, including uncovering woeful inadequacies in the cops’ official investigation. No one likes a young girl who points out what they’ve done wrong, especially authority figures.

A Good Girls Guide to Murder
A Good Girls Guide to Murder. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is charming if slight, but it carries on the grand tradition of girls being undervalued only to be proven right.

The best modern example of this figure is, of course, Veronica Mars. She’s snarky and a smart-arse, has trouble trusting people and hangs onto grudges. She also gets it done.

The series created by Rob Thomas (the writer, not the lead singer of Matchbox 20) blew in like a thunderstorm in 2004 and immediately won devoted fans who, two decades on, still live in hope for a fourth revival of a too-quickly-cancelled show. The original three seasons were followed by a 2014 fan-funded movie (remember when Kickstarter was all the rage?) and a 2019 eight-episode season.

Starring Kristen Bell, the character was like a cross between Nancy Drew and Sam Spade. She was jaded by her town, Neptune, and its rampant inequality, the ineptitude and corruption of institutions and how the rich continued to get away with murder. But she had Nancy Drew’s sense of justice, and the optimism that things should be better.

And Veronica was a very good detective. She was quick on her feet, spinning a yarn to get herself into places, and had great instincts and the humanity to empathise with her victims and clients.

That doesn’t make you popular and well-liked. As antagonist-turned-love-interest Logan Echolls once said to her, “Annoy, tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!”

Veronica Mars always had a quippy comeback.
Veronica Mars always had a quippy comeback. Credit: Warner Bros

Oh boy, did Veronica annoy people. It wasn’t just that she was a girl who could see people for who they were, she was also poor and the daughter of a disgraced sheriff who accused the richest and most powerful family in Neptune of covering up their daughter’s murder.

Nor do they appreciate quips such as “It’s all fun and games until one of you gets my foot up your arse”.

Veronica Mars was spiky, Harriet the Spy was judgy and Velma Dinkley was a know-it-all.

Culture, pop or otherwise, doesn’t treat caustic women particularly well. They’re some of the ultimate underdogs — underestimated, ignored and ridiculed for being smarter than the people around them.

Where would the Scooby Gang be without Velma? Running away from baddies in ghost masks.

Perhaps that’s why the girl detective genre has endured, and why every newcomer deserves at least a look in. It’s a push against the status quo.

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