My Magnificent Seven Detective Series by Robin Stevens
I’m really excited to have been asked to do this – any excuse to talk about mystery stories! Here are the seven mystery series that most influenced me as a kid, and that I think will still fire children’s imaginations today.
The Famous Five
These books were my introduction to mysteries. Sure, Anne, Julian and Dick are basically dead weight (George and Timmy the dog solve everything), and sure, the mysteries pretty much involve smugglers, smugglers and smugglers, but Enid Blyton is marvellous at creating worlds and groups that you're desperate to be a part of. Kirrin Island is just possible enough to feel like an achievable fantasy – a place where it’s always the summer holidays, delicious, mysterious food like macaroons is piled up in front of you at every meal, and you get to wander around in castles and triumph over bearded, villainous men. I wanted desperately to be a child that things happened to, and the Famous Five’s was my very favourite fantasy life.
The Secret Seven
Like the Famous Five, but more densely populated. I remember, even as a child, being infuriated by how little the girls were allowed to do (especially as the boys made so many mistakes) but again, I was fascinated by the concept itself – kids, going up against adults and WINNING. I had my own secret society with my best friend (as I think most kids did) and we looked frantically for mysteries to solve. It made me really imagine that I could be a detective – if even the Secret Seven could uncover dastardly dealings, surely I could be able to as well.
I first read these books aged 8, so for me they're very much for children. I loved how no-holds-barred they were: people really died. The stakes were high, and the peril was real, but Sherlock was such a dashing superhero that I knew he’d always be OK. I loved how unashamedly smart he was, too – the cases rested on real information, logically assessed. And even though the stories all take place in the real world, there’s something just a bit magical about them: Sherlock goes up against vampires, ghosts and pantomime-evil villains. Basically, there’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes is the most beloved detective the world has ever seen.
I'm convinced that this is really a series of mystery novels (starring Hermione Grainger) that just happens to be set in a wizard boarding school. The mystery to be solved is always quite similar, along the lines of 'and where is Voldemort hiding this time?', but although it seems simple, the answer is always wholly unexpected. Rowling is a brilliant plotter and a very clever misdirector – I remember feeling genuinely astonished the first time I read each book, and delighted that I'd found a book specifically for children that could trick me like that.
Nancy Drew may not be enormously handy in a crisis (she screams and runs away a lot), but I loved her investigative style and her taste in coats (my favourite villain, incidentally, was Carmen Sandiago, for the same reasons). I liked the idea of a detective who was clever and also glamorous (why couldn't someone be both?) and I was so jealous about how free Nancy was. She had access to cars and boats and airplanes – she had all the benefits of being grown up with none of the boring bits.
The Sally Lockhart Mysteries
For me, this series has everything. A bold, clever, sharp-shooting heroine, a Victorian setting to rival Sherlock's, magic, mystery and exactly the right sort of romance. Just like the Holmes stories, too, there’s just a hint of magical otherness – you feel that anything could happen, and it usually does. Murders, fires, thefts, curses and terrifying mechanical contraptions capable of taking over the world, it’s glorious, swashbuckling stuff.
My final pick is probably much lesser known over here than it is in its native country, America. All the same, I can’t mention my favourite mystery series without including it. As a kid I was absolutely hooked (and slightly in love with Encyclopedia himself), and I read Encyclopedia’s adventures again and again and again. The joy of them is that they’re such achievable mysteries – each story is only a few pages long, and hinges on a single logic problem which the reader must work out the key to. Basically, they ask you to spot what’s wrong with a scene: perfect puzzles for aspiring detectives to cut their teeth on.
Huge thanks to Robin for taking the time to write this for The Book Zone. Murder Most Unladylike is available to buy right now and Arsenic for Tea is due to be released on 29th January.