Get ’em While They’re Young
Truly hard-boiled children’s literature probably doesn’t really exist (and would we want it to?), but here are a few suggestions to whet young appetites for the real thing a few years down the road.
After all, it’s never too early to get children reading. (Hell, I know some adults and even world leaders who should give it a try…)
I like to think that the format of many of the books I read as a kid, with all their essential pulpy goodness and their dependence on “some guy coming in the room with a gun” to move the plot along prepped me well for what has become a lifetime love of mystery and detective fiction.
Yeah, blame it on Frank and Joe… or maybe the Three Investigators…
It was a treat to read this stuff. A lot of folks turn up their nose at kiddie pulp, especially the Stratemeyer Syndicate stuff, but if they were written for kids, and kids loved them, does it matter that thirty or forty or fifty years later, an adult finds them wanting? I loved those books, and I’m sure most readers these days will admit to a soft spot for them, regardless of their “literary” value.
And I’m not the only one. Victoria Esposito-Shea confesses:
“I go back and read the books now and the logic drives me insane. There are holes in the cases that you could drive a Mack truck through, and the characters are so WASPy that I grit my teeth (at least the Hardy Boys had Tony Prito, the token Italian; Nancy Drew had no one), but I still keep going back. (Usually this involves sneaking into my daughter’s room in the dead of night and snatching books off her shelf, but that’s another story.)”
I’ve arranged the books by suggested reading age, although good parents know that a child’s reading tastes, like water, seeks its own level.
A good general rule of thumb, then, is: “If they don’t put it down, it’s appropriate for them.”
- Private I. Guana
The Case of the Missing Chameleon
Written and illustrated by Nina Laden
This is a clever little story book for younger kids, who’ll dig the great illustrations and the quirky world of lizard detectives, bullfrog cops and a chameleon with an identity crisis, and their parents, who’ll recognize the cliches of the P.I. genre that the book so gently and lovingly skewers.
- Flatfoot Fox
by Eth Clifford
Woodland hijinks solved by the “smartest detective in the whole world.”
- Rider Woofson & The PI Pack
by Felix Gumpaw
Doggie detective Rider and the crimebusting canines of The PI Pack keep the classrooms safe and the mysteries solved at Pawston Elementary, in this series of storybooks for the 5-8 set.
- Chet Gecko
Written and illustrated by Bruce Hale
The logical follow-up to Private I. Guana (above), for kids from 8-12. Chet is a detective. He’s also a grade four student at Emerson Hicky Elementary School. And yes, he is a lizard.
- Sam the Cat: Detective
by Linda Stewart
No, really. This is a pretty good mystery for kids, complete with a tough-talking puss, and some of the nastiest villians to ever cough up a hairball.
- Scooby-Doo & the Mystery Inc. Gang
by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears
Okay, they weren’t “private eyes” — I don’t think they were ever paid. But this long-running Hanna-Barbera cartoon had been a consistent gateway drug to mystery for several generations of kids by now.
- Encyclopedia Brown
by Donald J. Sobol
Arguably the most influential child detective ever. Down those tree-lined streets a child must go, neither tarnished nor afraid. Alas, by the time Encyclopedia showed up, my kiddie pulp days were pretty much behind me.
- Princess King
By Martin Powell & Fernando Cano
Private Eye Princess and the Emerald Pea
Part of the “Far Out Fairy Tales” series, this goofy but cute riff on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic “The Princess and the PeA” is a hoot, as Princess King and her trusty beagle, Pants, hunt for “The Pea,” a valuable emerald that’s gone missing. Loaded with educational backmatter, but don’t tell the kids that.
- Nikki Neal
by Derek Gilbert
A relatively new contender, Nikki is a modern kinda ten-year old who plans on giving ol’ Encyclopedia Brown a run for his money. Her stories are currently available for download online.
- Bernie Magruder
by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Bernie lives in a hotel in the Midwest, managed by his parents. Suffice it to say trouble frequently checks in.
- The McGurk Organisation
by E.W. Hildick
The only series our pal Philip Eagle ever liked. “They came out in the seventies-eighties and the first was called The Nose Knows,” says Phil. “It was the basic gang situation, but unlike the usual kids-beat-Nazi-spies stuff the whole thing used detective-story plot lines on things that might actually happen in a kid’s life, and made it really matter to the reader. There were also some deliberate nods to Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler, and what I now recognise to be an extended parody of John Dickson Carr’s supernatural-crime tales.”
by Satyajit Ray
This much beloved thirty-something private eye works the streets of Calcutta, in a long-running series created by Indian filmmaker Ray. Intended for children, although adults love him too, he’s a cultural touchstone for many Indians.
- Kat Dylan
by Chris Wieland
Feisty big-city kid Kat (13) and her annoying kid sk8r boi brother Alec (10) have just relocated to nowheresville Crabtree, Michigan, which isn’t quite as sleepy as they thought.
- Sammy Keyes
by Wendelin Van Draanen
She may not be two-fisted, but she sure is pugnacious. On her first day of junior high school, Samantha Keyes gets suspended for punching another girl in the nose, and so it goes, as Sammy progresses through this series aimed at the 10-13 market, seemingly unable to keep out of trouble.
- Nick and Tim Diamond
The Falcon’s Malteser
By Anthony Horowitz
A good-natured, private eye parody featuring a rather inept young P.I., who’s helped out by his long-suffering kid brother, on the trail of a mysterious box of candy. Later made into the 1988 film Diamond’s Edge, also recommended.
- Henry Coffin
Coffin on the Case
by Eve Bunting
Twelve-year old Henry wants to be a private eye, just like his dad. And then a high school beauty struts into his dad’s office…
- Andy and Willie
By Lee Sheridan Cox
A kinder, gentler riff on boy detectives, but not without plenty of subtle wit.
- Detective Barney
Collected in The Adventures of Detective Barney
by Harvey O’Higgins
16-year old Barney Cook is the quick-witted office boy and assistant for the Babbing Bureau, a New York City detective agency. Although the seven short stories were written way back in 1914 or so, originally published in Collier’s and later collected in The Adventures of Detective Barney (1915), Barney still ranks highly and was considered by some “the most believable of boy detectives in American literature” (re: Maddened by Mystery).
- Colwyn Dane
By Rupert Hall (pseudonym of Edward Reginald Home-Gall)
Other authors include Mark Grimshaw (a house pseudonym; used by Ernest McKeag, Harry Belfield & others)
British private detective Dane (and his enthusiastic young assistant, Slick Chester) appeared in over a thousand adventures in the pages of The Champion, a weekly fiction magazine aimed at young boys.
- October Schwartz & The Dead Kid Detective Agency
By Evan Munday
A lonely, mixed-up 13-year old girl befriends the ghosts of five dead kids who hang out at the local Sticksville Cemetery, and decide to form a detective agency. I mean, who wouldn’t.
- The Hardy Boys Mysteries
by Franklin W. Dixon (group pen name)
Still the all-time best selling series of books for boys, with well over 250 books published so far, and counting, all featuring the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy, teenage sons of celebrated private detective Fenton Hardy. And more than a few girls read ’em too. There are several series now going, but if you can dig up the first thirty or so original (non-revised) books in the series, you’re in for a treat. Real kid pulp, full of action, nasty villians, narrow escapes, dumb cops, thrilling chases and all that other good stuff, written by pulp writer Leslie McFarlane and others under the Stratemeyer syndicate pen name. Later the early books were cleaned up and rewritten for “modern” tastes, and a lot of the purple prose and violence was cut out. However, in a ironic twist of fate, a new series of paperback adventures called The Hardy Boys Casefiles restakes the originals’ claim to pulpliness by blowing Joe’s longtime girlfriend to bits!
- Nancy Drew
by Carolyn Keene (group pen name)
Now a feminist icon, despite the fact that at least occasionally, it seems, Carolyn Keene may have een a man. Alas, because they were “girl” books, I never read these, but a lot of other folks did. And, as roving correspondent Jan Long asks, “So what’s stopping you now? As with the Hardy Boys, the originals, before they were dumbed down, were pretty good. (And by originals, I mean the ones from my mom’s childhood, not mine).”
- The Three Detectives
by Simon Brett
Mystery writer Simon Brett’s series aimed at younger readers features three schoolmates who team up to investigate “anything that’s strange and can’t be easily explained.” sort of like The Three Investigators, but aimed at a younger audience. And these detectives are British, and one of them’s a girl.
- The Three Investigators: Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Series
by Robert Arthur, Jr., and various authors
The basic premise: Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews set up a detective agency. Their secret headquarters is in a housetrailer buried in the “smart one’s” uncle’s junkyard. Well-written with bona-fide mysteries, they were a real treat, especially compared to the sanitized rewrites the Hardy Boys were undergoing at the same time. In fact, the series was created by Robert Arthur Jr. and several of the books were written by Dennis Lynds (under the pseudonym of William Arden), both of them Edgar winners.
- Brains Benton
by Charles Spain Verral
As proprietors of the Benton & Carson International Detective Agency, Barclay “Brains” Benton and Jimmy “Operative Three (there is no Operative Two)” Carson solved a number of cases in the small college town of Crestwood in the 60s and early 70s.
- Lemony Snicket
by Lemony Snicket
In the All the Wrong Questions series, the acclaimed author of the bestselling (despite his dire warnings) An Unfortunate Series of Events, gives a “highly autobiographical account” of his peculiar adventures as an “almost-thirteen” year old boy. The quartet of novels “takes place at a time before the Baudelaire children were born.” Just as the earlier series tweaked and teased and gleefully knocked the slats out from under Charles’ Dickens in particular and gothic novels in general, this new series seems to be having a jolly good time at the expense of hard-boiled and noir crime fiction.
- Exit 13
by Steve April
According to our pal Roger Martin, it’s “a splendid novel… about a young boy who becomes postman to discover who has killed his adoptive father, a carrier himself.” Steve April was a pen name of Len Zinberg, perhaps best known as Ed Lacy. This book is extremely rare, although Roger is proud to say he owns a copy (as does Bill Pronzini).
- Kat Dylan
by Chris Wieland
A smart, feisty 13-year-old girl detective and her sk8r boi kid brother, shipped off from Los Angeles to the small town of Crabtree, Michigan, amuse themselves by trying to keep their grandfather, the local sheriff, out of jail when he’s arrested for bank robber in The Crabtree Monsters (2022), the first in a proposed series that straddles the line between Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars. Kat’s smart and tough, a good student and a strong athlete, plus she’s a bit of a true crime geek, and she knows how to defend herself–everything the thoroughly modern girl detective should be.
- Quique Hache by Sergio Gomez
A fun’loving fifteen-year-old from Santiago, Chile, realizes his dream of becoming a real-life private eye. Alas, in Spanish only…
- The Navigator Kids
by Christopher Radke
A sly and more violent take on The Three Investigators, (with or without Alfred Hitchcock), Christopher Radke serves up a thoroughly modern update, leaving any vestige of innocence far behind,offering real-life crimes, widespread corruption, vitriol-spewing social media and a street-level worldview that notes a cop at a crime scene “taking a piss behind the metal dumpster across the street.” For seriously jaded kids.
- Kiddie Pulp, Part II
Portrait of the Detective as a Young Sleuth
Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Jan, Voctoria and Roger for their help with this list.