Thursday, January 18, 2007

Trixie Lore

Ellen Moody of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too has often mentioned Bobbie Ann Mason’s study of Nancy Drew. Although I avidly read Nancy Drew as a girl, I preferred a rival series about the tomboyish Trixie Belden. Sixteen books in the series have been reissued by Random House and are worth a look by collectors and others. I reread several recently, considering writing a retrospective about the female role models of my youth, and though I found the Trixie Belden books uneven, they are enjoyable in a kitschy way. She is indeed a sympathetic heroine. Fourteen-year-old Trixie believes there's nothing she can't do. Although she simply has too many distractions to succeed in school, she is very bright: she spends her time sleuthing, horseback riding, raising money for UNICEF, elderly displaced women, the school art department, and other charities, and attending meetings of the club she belongs to.

Julie Campbell Tatham, the creator of Trixie Belden, conceived of the series as an alternative to Nancy Drew, which she thought badly written. She wanted Trixie to be a more realistic character than Nancy, so Trixie has faults, occasionally makes mistakes in her sleuthing, and often jumps to conclusions, though she always solves her crime in the end. The first novel was published under Tatham’s maiden name, Campbell, in 1948; after the sixth book she left to write Cherry Ames and a stewardess series (both created by another writer). Then Western Publishing Company, publisher of the Trixie Belden series, which had paid her a flat fee for her books, insisted that it owned the rights to continue the series with other writers. Tatham fought them in court and won royalties for the other books, which were written by several different ghostwriters under the name Kathyrn Kenny, In 1986, after the publishing company had been bought a couple of times, the series died. If I remember correctly, Mattel was the last owner of the company. They were probably too busy with Barbie to appreciate Trixie.

It’s fascinating to see how Trixie changes over time. So many writers were involved that no one is quite sure who wrote some of the books. Some have been identified, others not. My favorite ghostwriter wrote both The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island and The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain. This particular “Kathryn Kenny” is a better stylist than most. Trixie is considerably more worldly and mature in the 1980s than she was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, though even then she could knock guns out of gang members’ hands (The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island), solve a sheep theft case and survive one of the worst floods in Des Moines (The Happy Valley Mystery), and briefly pilot a plane (The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain).

Most of the plot is told in dialogue. The novels are a bit clumsy, but I thought them incredibly witty as a child and was mesmerized by Trixie and her best friend, Honey. My mother had to buy me these and the Nancy Drew books. She had an argument with the librarian, who did not pity my mother for having to buy me the two series. The librarian told her the books were too poorly written to be in a library. Well, that has changed over the years...

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