Closer kin to Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton than L. Frank Baum’s professional young Secret Service agent Josie O’Gorman were Augusta Huiell Seaman’s girl detectives. Seaman was a prolific writer who wrote more than forty books, most of them mysteries for girls. In 1915 at the time she published her first mystery, The Boarded-Up House, first as a serial in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, publishers were only just beginning to recognize girl readers as a viable target market distinct from boys.
The typical Seaman protagonists were a pair of teenage girlfriends (“chums” is a word that appears often) or sisters, sometimes with a male cousin thrown in to provide colorful language (see below). These girls often present a contrast in appearance and temperament, as in The Dragon’s Secret (1921): “Leslie was slight and dark in appearance, rather timid in disposition, and inclined to be shy and hesitant in manner. Phyllis was quite the opposite—large and plump and rosy, courageous and independent, jolly, and often headlong and thoughtless in action.” Think plump Bess and boyish George, with some attributes redistributed. What the best of friends in these books have in common is their passion for reading. The invalid Margaret Bronson (whose favorite book is Little Women — did you guess?) in The Sapphire Signet (1916) “loved books—loved them with the passionate delight that only confirmed invalids can feel for the printed magic that takes them out of themselves and makes them forget their bodily ills” and “read voraciously everything that came her way.” In The Shadow on the Dial (1927), sixteen-year-old Naomi says that her sister Enid “adores mystery and detective stories.” Fourteen-year-old Doris shares books with her new friend Sally in The Slipper Point Mystery (1921), and fifteen-year-old Bernice shares books with her new friend Delight in The Mystery at Number Six (1922).
What do they most like to read? Mysteries, of course, and Sherlock Holmes mysteries in particular. Reading fuels their longing for adventure, and Holmes is the model they attempt to follow in exploring mysteries. In The Boarded-Up House, Joyce tells her best friend Cynthia, “Why, it’s an adventure, Cynthia, like the kind we’ve always longed for. You know we’ve always said we’d love to have some adventures, above everything else.” The invalid Margaret in The Sapphire Signet confides to her mother, “Oh, I want some adventures — just one nice, big, beautiful adventure would do!” One can’t help thinking of Jane Eyre, who wrote, “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity [sic]: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . .Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.” Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries may also explain the frequent inclusion of codes and ciphers in these books.
And speaking of Jane Eyre, there are plenty of Gothic houses in these books, often forbidden spaces that the girls explore, their consciences taxed but not overtaxed by the knowledge that they are trespassing. These houses conceal secrets from the past, including papers, journals, and artifacts that reveal the turbulent histories of their former residents. A favorite theme is a family torn apart by a violent quarrel, later regretted, sometimes having to do with opposing sides in the Civil War. (Contemporary readers should be warned that Southern settings often feature stereotypical black characters.)
As to the protagonists’ own families, these are interesting, too. I’ve written before about the inconvenience of mothers to the development of a girl detective. According to Christine M. Volk, though, Seaman’s own mother died when she was nine, and she spent time living with relatives, so that may provide a more obvious explanation for the missing mothers in Seaman’s novels: some are dead, some are ailing, and at least one is a working single mother, so they are rarely around to interfere with their daughters’ adventures. Fathers, when present, can also suffer poor health or be absent on business. But the father in The Sapphire Signet is an interesting case. While the father of the Bronson sisters is dead, their friend Corinne’s father is actually permitted entry into the girls’ secret society, the Antiquarian Club, on Corinne’s enthusiastic recommendation: “He and I are such chums! . . . He romps around with me as though he were only sixteen!” Mr. Cameron is also in poor health, however, and it is this poor health that enables a trip to Bermuda to solve the club’s mystery. Mr. Cameron is a clear forerunner of Carson Drew.
Brothers in these books are mostly a nuisance, but boy cousins and boy friends occasionally come in handy. Along with a wider geographical range than the girls, these boys sometimes introduce a wider verbal range as well. The horrid Alexander, a thirteen-year-old who
spies on them, is permitted into the Antiquarian Club grudgingly by his cousins, again at the urging of Corinne, who exclaims, “Did you ever hear such a glorious collection of slang!” Alexander’s cousin Bess has a very different reaction: “His language is so dreadful and slangy! It irritates me to pieces.” When sisters Naomi and Enid first meet their new friend Ronny in The Shadow on the Dial, “his slang somewhat took the girls’ breath away.” These boys’ speech adds color to the books, but it also follows a recurring theme in girl detective fiction generally. The young women sleuths who populated the dime novels of the nineteenth century had to master slang in order to become masters of disguise; in order to impersonate men and enter spaces forbidden to women, they had to talk the talk as well as walk the walk, and the impropriety of their speech is often commented on.
Seaman’s long career demonstrates the success of her formula, but for a more personal tribute, read Christine Volk’s “Nancy Drew for Smart Kids: Mysteries by Augusta Huiell Seaman.” She describes her reaction to the typical Seaman plot, a reaction similar to mine when I, an avid Nancy Drew fan, discovered the more commonplace pleasures of Judy Bolton: “This was a situation in which my friend – another reader of Seaman’s books – and I could easily imagine ourselves becoming involved. While we read, and liked, the Nancy Drew mysteries, Nancy’s ability to travel on a whim almost anywhere in the world was so far outside of our own personal experience that we never really expected to live in one of her stories.”
Some of Seaman’s books are widely available free from Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and Amazon, as well as in low-cost reprint editions. You should know, though, that many of these editions do not include the original illustrations, although the Project Gutenberg versions do.