Saturday 14 February 2015

MG Mysteries and Diversity

From when I was in primary school, long before I even knew what MG stood for, I devoured detective stories. Like many children growing up in that era, I started with Enid Blyton. While I was a fan of the Famous Five, I much preferred some of her less well-known series, like the Five Find-Outers and the Adventure books – I have fond memories of a fun, but bizarre, late 1990s TV adaptation of the latter!

After that, I progressed to the Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and others. With boarding school stories being another genre I loved, Valerie Hastings’s Jill Investigates proved a firm favourite. You can imagine my delight when my dad first read to me from Jennings Follows A Clue, which saw Anthony Buckeridge’s beloved schoolboy duo Jennings and Darbishire form the Linbury Court Detective Agency, to investigate the mystery of the flashing lights in the sanatorium.

I’ve reread quite a few of these books recently (although I picked up the second, third and fourth Three Investigators second-hand and am stubbornly holding off from rereading until I can track down the first somewhere!) While some have held up better than others, what has struck me is just how similar most of the main characters seem. Yes, Frederick Algernon Trotteville and Jupiter Jones are happier as the sedate brains of the outfit, while Pete Crenshaw and JCT Jennings are young men of action. The girls  can be outspoken tomboys like George Kirrin, or home-makers in the same vein as her cousin Anne (who I always thought got a raw deal; I loved LH Johnson’s wonderful post about her here!), with Nancy Drew’s characteristics changing significantly depending on which ghostwriter and editor were working on a book. But overwhelmingly, the heroes, and the vast majority of supporting characters, were white, British or American (usually the same nationality as their author), part of traditional families with a mother and father still living together, able-bodied, and neurotypical.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and MG mystery is perhaps the hottest genre around – just take a look at the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize shortlist for confirmation. But oh, what a difference a couple of decades makes! Elen Caldecott’s recent Diamonds and Daggers has a Polish lead character, Piotr, and a black supporting character, Minnie, while Laura Marlin’s friend Tariq plays a key role in her adventures, and former slave girl Nubia is a central character in Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery is about Ted, a boy with Asperger's syndrome, and Wild Boy focuses on the title character, who's a runaway from a circus freak show. (Wild Boy is an interesting one to consider, as I can actually imagine Blyton, or an author of her era, having tackled this kind of story - the Famous Five had encounters with circuses - but it's harder to believe that a boy covered in hair and shunned as a monster would have been the central character in an earlier era, rather than just a problem to be solved for the heroes.) I haven't read it yet, but Virginia Macgregor's What Milo Saw, about a boy losing his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa trying to protect his gran when she's moved into a horrible nursing home, sounds excellent as well.

Perhaps the highest-profile of all, given the stunning success of Robin Stevens’s first two books, is her narrator Hazel Wong. Feeling out of place in an English boarding school, with many of the people she encounters seeming to see her as 'the Orient' rather than as a person, one of the key things about her friendship with glamorous Daisy Wells is that, for all her faults, Daisy never seems to consider Hazel differently because of her skin. Theirs is a friendship of two equals, however others might view Hazel, and her calmer approach to mysteries is just as vital to the detective society's success as Daisy's energy and flair is. (On a side note, I attended the launch for Arsenic for Tea last weekend - check out the photos below - and it was fantastic to see so many children so keen to see Robin!)

Susie Day's Pea perhaps sums up the difference between the older mysteries and the more modern ones perfectly in the final book of the quartet she narrates, Pea's Book of Holidays - which functions rather splendidly both as a Blytonesque adventure and a critique of Blyton's own books. A huge fan of the old stories, who's quite upset when they're criticised, she nevertheless realises that Enid Blyton just didn't write about families like hers, with a mixed-race sister, her friend Sam's, with two mothers, or her new friend Ryan, who has hemiplegia.

Like Pea, I still retain a real love of Enid Blyton, and the Three Investigators, Jennings, Nancy Drew and the rest. I'm sure I'll reread them all several times in the future. But I'm hugely glad that today's mysteries provide both the same clever solutions and sense of adventure that their predecessors did, and a much more diverse cast of characters too.

Are there any more mysteries you'd particularly recommend? I'd love it if you shared them in the comments!

Jim blogs at YA Yeah Yeah and tweets quite a bit. He'd like to thank LH Johnson, Robin Stevens, and Abi Elphinstone for giving feedback on this post.


  1. Great post Jim! Also a five find-outers fan. My junior school book group also love mysteries and recently enjoyed Space Case by Stuart Gibbs and The Case of the Time Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer (the actress). And I think The London Eye Mystery is a classic, right up there with The Curious Incident...

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