The other girl detective: Judy Bolton

Nancy Drew with a social conscience

Margaret Sutton

Like the Hardy Boys, those Canadian-spawned all-American junior PIs, the adventures of Nancy Drew, girl detective, have never been out of print. The same can’t be said for Judy Bolton, one of the most popular of Drew’s rivals back in her heyday (1932 to 1967). That’s despite, or perhaps because of, the fact Bolton, for modern feminist critics, was a less flashy but more realistic character. Now publisher Applewood Books, which specializes in works about the American past and reprints of past fiction, has finished righting a historic wrong.

By September, nine years after the death of author Margaret Sutton at 98—unlike the ghostwritten Drew stories, the Bolton novels were one woman’s work—all 38 of Judy’s adventures will be back in print, displaying the small-town Pennsylvania sleuth in all her proto-feminist glory.

Sally Parry, 56, is happy to see them return. The associate dean at Illinois State University found a slew of the original editions in the attic of her family home after her mother died. “I realized I must have read them as a kid, though I’d forgotten them.” Then Parry reread the books, and found a heroine who was both emblematic of her New Deal times and still an appealing role model today.

Judy ages over time, from a 15-year-old high-schooler to a married woman (although Sutton’s publishers wouldn’t let her have children). She’s a doctor’s daughter concerned with fitting in with her well-heeled friends, but not at the cost of abandoning pals from the wrong side of the tracks. She uncovers economic crimes unusual in juvenile fiction, like dangerously shoddy construction work. Her own family suffers economic loss when a flood destroys their home. And perhaps most intriguing, Judy is always more concerned with re-establishing relationships, particularly with restoring lost or alienated children to their families, than in finding stolen jewels or counterfeit bills.

The class awareness is striking. Writing in the depths of the Great Depression, Sutton, a devout Unitarian, felt strongly about not judging a book by its cover: any character, including Judy herself, who thoughtlessly dismisses anyone based on clothing or speech is sure to be rebuked by someone else.

(“Not like the Drew stories,” Parry comments dryly, “where to be poor generally means to be bad.”) Even minor criminality isn’t entirely beyond the pale; two polite young Canadian bootleggers are (almost) nice guys. Judy’s friend Irene attends industrial high school at night while working in a factory during the day to support her father, disabled by toxic materials at his job. “This hard-working silk-mill girl was no older than Judy but her responsibility made her seem older.” Nor is Sutton afraid to expose Judy’s early naïveté: when Irene’s factory shuts down early, Judy expresses her envy, but Irene curtly replies, “When we don’t work, we don’t get paid. I dread holidays.”

Like the more exciting events in the early books—a burst dam did flood a town near hers when Sutton was eight—the familiarity with working-class struggles came from the author’s own life. In her 80s Sutton told an interviewer how happy she had been to go into the printing trade in the early 1920s, “one of the men’s jobs that opened up after the First World War”; but far less pleased to learn her job was only available because “I was a strikebreaker.” Similarly, the great American social issue—race relations—plays no role in the stories because it played none in Sutton’s life: after Judy finds a rich friend’s door opened by a black maid, Sutton speaks for herself too when she writes, “Judy looked closely. She had never seen a Negro before.”

One factor inescapably present in the lives of both author and heroine was their gender. Judy at times chafes under the curbs imposed on her as a girl. “Sometimes I wish I were a boy,” she bursts out when prevented from chasing after robbers, “a detective who goes into all kinds of dangers.” More subtly, there is a constant undertone of everyone around Judy—including her mother, but with the conspicuous exception of her father—striving to keep this bold and uppity young woman confined within acceptable boundaries, something they never manage to do over 35 years and 38 adventures.