- The Boy Detective in Early British Children’s Literature: Patrolling the Borders between Boyhood and Manhood by Lucy Andrew
Detective fiction fans might recall Gooseberry, the boy detective who tantalizingly appears in a single chapter of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). We all know about Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars, and children today are still reading some of the juvenile series detectives who appeared in the early-to-mid twentieth century, such as Enid Blyton’s child investigative groups (the Famous Five, Secret Seven, and the Five Find-Outers) or the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
But there is clearly a lot more to it, as Lucy Andrew demonstrates in her diligently researched and clearly argued The Boy Detective in Early British Children’s Literature: Patrolling the Borders between Boyhood and Manhood. Focused on a subgenre of detective fiction, it is also an intervention in the fields of children’s literature and periodical studies. Andrew covers a dizzying array of texts, illustrating both the promise and challenges of working in periodical studies and keeping before the reader seemingly countless stories by multiple authors in many periodicals featuring a range of boy sleuths. Andrew additionally weaves in important social context such as changing ideas about education, child labor, public health, and adolescence from the second half of the nineteenth century through World War I.
The story begins with the familiar worry about what newly literate people are reading. If critics in the 1860s feared the effects of sensation novels on female readers, publishers worried about the increasing appetite for the criminal-centric penny dreadful on the part of young male readers, increasingly able to read and purchase story papers. A “potentially delinquent boy audience,” Andrew explains, “was perceived to be in need of discipline and guidance in order to suppress undesirable characteristics” (9). Enter Ernest Keen, the morally upright and proudly British hero of the anonymously authored serial The Boy Detective; or, the Crimes of London. A Romance of Modern Times (1865–66). Detection was a relatively new profession for adult men in England during this period, so it is interesting that the boy detective makes his entrance. Andrew also notes that around this time two novels focused on female detectives appeared, Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) and Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864), attributed to William Stephens Hayward. Such timing raises an interesting question about whether the genre, traditionally associated with realism, actually had its first stirrings in fantasy.
Andrew’s reading of Keen in chapter 2 is as a fantasy of moral policing, a figure who facilitates a proper movement from boyhood to adulthood. Originally from the middle class, he gets into the detective business, as does many a sleuth, to investigate the murder of his father. But Ernest “is committed to public justice over personal vengeance” (24). As we later see in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the “text’s role extends beyond suppressing vice to actively encouraging virtue” (28). Andrew argues, however, that these stories promote “middle-class behavior,” not “social mobility,” so the boy detective here “reinforces class boundaries” even as he tries to glamorize law and order (29).
Society is not ready, it seems, for the tensions that resulted from a boy detective who is “socially superior and generationally inferior to the law enforcement system alongside which he works” (38). And so the boy detective disappears for about thirty years. Chapter [End Page 702] 3 picks up his trail again as Holmes’s popularity in The Strand Magazine inaugurates a world of countless detectives, some with boy assistants. The Harmsworth Brothers’ half-penny story papers (which would become the Amalgamated Press) featured detective Sexton Blake, with his Chinese boy-helper We-wee, and Nelson Lee with Nipper. These teams made their debut in the Halfpenny Marvel between 1893 and 1894, and journals like this, as well as Pluck and The Union Jack, were cheaper than the more supposedly respectable and expensive The...