By Sally E. Parry
The Judy Bolton detective series, created by Margaret Sutton, is notable because it was ahead of its time in creating a realistic young woman who is able to solve mysteries and is also sensitive to modern concerns about class and cultures other than her own. Judy is a liberal humanist, one who chooses her friends and her cases because of an interest in other human beings and a hope that she can make a difference for the better in the world. Although the series was not quite as popular as Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton is in many ways a much stronger role model for young women. Marcia Muller, creator of the hard-boiled Sharon McCone detective novels, noted that Judy Bolton was her favorite adolescent female detective because Judy seemed like a real girl, one who was able to speak her mind while solving interesting but not usually far-fetched mysteries. During a recent rereading of many of these novels, it became clear to me that Judy Bolton deserves re-examination in light of the attention the series pays to such continuing issues as class consciousness and cultures other than white, anglo-saxon, Protestant ones.
Margaret Sutton developed the character of Judy Bolton, a fifteen-year-old high school student who lived in northwestern Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. Despite her desire to become a detective, Judy's life is very firmly grounded in "a rather ordinary situation in a small town with a regular family and periodic disappointments," according to Bobbie Ann Mason, as she writes in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide. During the course of the series, which ran from 1932 to 1967, Judy graduates from high school, takes a job, and gets married. Her growing up and taking on adult responsibilities do not lessen her adventures as a detective, but instead add a feeling of verisimilitude that other series have been unable to match. As Mason notes, "her marriage does not end her life." She is still able to travel, meet new people, and maintain relationships with men and women outside of her husband and family.
Judy's desire to solve mysteries is not restrained by her sex. Especially when she is younger, she resents the restrictions that society places on young women. She complains, "Sometimes I wish I were a boy... a detective,... a great one who goes into all kinds of dangers" The Vanishing Shadow). She speaks out for equal rights for men and women, and is offended when people seem to value her looks over her intellect. She snaps at one young man, "Of course I'm thinking. What do you suppose my head is for, to decorate my shoulders?" (The Voice in the Suitcase). Although her parents are sometimes concerned about her adventures, they value her intelligence and honesty. "Judy hated rules. Her own parents subjected her to very few because they understood her dependable nature" (The Ghost Parade). As the daughter of a middle-class doctor, she faces certain expectations in terms of friends and behavior, but confounds them whenever she feels they are unfair or overly restrictive. She values individuals regardless of their social status, and a search for clues to get at the truth over an artificial sense of propriety.
At the start of the series, Judy's family suffers from a tragedy which makes her more sympathetic to people from lower social classes. Her father is a successful doctor in the small town of Roulsville, Pennsylvania, where there are "no very rich and no very poor people" (The Haunted Attic). After a serious flood caused by a broken dam, the town is destroyed and her family is forced to move thirty miles away to the city of Farringdon. Because all of their possessions have been washed away, they have little money and are loaned a rundown house in one of the poorer sections of town. Near their new home "a row of houses, all exactly alike and all painted yellow, stood on a high bank and flight after flight of rickety steps led up to them. In almost every front yard, clothes lines full of clothes, some white and some not so white, fluttered in the breeze. Judy set her lips together. She had not realized what it meant to be poor in a small city" (The Haunted Attic).
Judy's father establishes a new practice, becomes associated with the Farringdon Hospital, and the family fortunes improve. Yet, many of his patients are from the poor and working classes and he maintains his office in the family home. Doctor Bolton often observes that he does not choose his patients by their income level. From her exposure to people from various social levels, Judy realizes that she wants to socialize with the people she likes, not just those whose parents are well off.
One of the most strikin- things about Judy Bolton is her genuine interest in people, regardless of their social class. Due to her father's profession, some of the girls from the well-to families in town encourage her to join their crowd. She does want to be liked and belong, but she does not want to ignore her neighborhood friends. When Lorraine Lee, daughter of the town's newspaper publisher, implies that her friendship with the girls who work in the mills will make her a social pariah, Judy retorts, "do you mean to tell me that just because I treat a few poor girls like human beings, all your crowd will turn me down?" (The Haunted Attic). Her anger is real, as is her determination not to be caugyht up in class warfare. She even throws a party at her new home in Farringdon to which she invites both the well-off crowd and the millworkers. Cleverly, she holds a costume party so that no one will know who is who. Although she is never able to obtain a complete acceptance of one group by the other, the tension between them does lessen. Judy finds that there is reverse snobbery as well, and that she has to defend her friendship with the downtown crowd to her millworker friends. She likes people like Lois and Arthur Farringdon-Pett because they are good people, not because they are rich. She even likes Lorraine Lee, but feels sympathy for her "because Lorraine's studied mannerisms prevented her from enjoying life as completely as Judy did. And the fun-loving aubum-haired girl guessed that something truly fine might be discovered under Lorraine's haughty veneer" (The Ghost Parade).
Since Judy is used to a middle-class perspective, she has to learn what it means to be workina class. At first she is not aware of how difficult it is for people her own age who must work. She becomes friendly with Irene Lang, a seventeen-year-old young woman who attends an industrial high school at night and must work in the silk mills during the day. Irene has to support her father who has been disabled because of working with poisonous substances at the mill. "This hard-working silk-mill girl was no older than Judy but her responsibility made her seem older. She looked older too because she was usually tired. Her father's long illness added to her worries. A great many doctors had told him that he could never be cured" (Seven Strange Clues). Judy is sympathetic, but doesn't realize how hard Irene's life is. She envies Irene when she gets off from work early, but Irene says that "when we don't work, we don't get paid. I always dread holidays" (The Haunted Attic). Irene longs for the day when she and her father can have "a substantial home that could not be taken away at every whim of the landlord" (The Yellow Phantom). She is also aware of the scorn people like Lorraine Lee have for her and other working girls. She says, "Those girls have to know who your great grandfather was before they'll so much as speak to you" (The Haunted Attic). In many ways, Irene says she prefers the industrial high school she attends because there is not the sort of social snobbery of Judy's high school.
As Judy becomes more sensitive to the concerns of her millworker friends, she solves several mysteries related to their problems. Poor housing, unsafe conditions at work, and fear of unemployment seem to haunt them. Ironically, the cause of some of these problems is related to Kay Vincent, one of the elite downtown crowd. Despite her airs and social position, her father, Harry Vincent, is a slumlord for many of the rundown houses on Upper Grove Street in Farringdon. He is the sort of man who "always insisted upon prompt payments of rents, making, no allowance for unemployment, illness or death in the homes of his tenants" (Seven Strange Clues), as one of the millworkers bitterly complains.
In several of the mysteries that Judy solves, she finds out that Harry Vincent has made much of his money through illegal or unethical means. He sells illegal liquor, refuses to make improvements in the housing he owns, and sanctions hazardous conditions at the furniture factory. Judy's discovery of some of his dangerous business practices leave him open to legal action. In Seven Strange Clues, Irene learns that Harry Vincent was responsible for purchasing poisonous paint for the factory. She excitedly tells Judy that "we've a witness to testify that the men never had proper instructions about using it. We may be able to collect something for all these years Dad couldn't work." In The Midnight Visitor, it is revealed that Mr. Vincent was not even scrupulous about safety conditions for his own relatives. His brother Lou is blinded by an explosion and disappears for several years. Lou says that the "accident brought me to my senses. I wanted nothing more to do with a factory that underpaid and endangered the lives of its employees." Serious themes such as these ground the series in some of the real problems of working class people.
The first third of the series takes place during the Depression and, although it is never specifically referred to, many of the mysteries that Judy solves are related to poor economic conditions. Poverty and despair over lack of social safety net lead to the breakup of families, either directly or indirectly. The theme of children separated from their parents for reasons beyond their control is common in these novels. Selma Brady, whose family moves into Irene Lang's house, is desolated by the incarceration of her father. He is suspected of theft, due partly to his brother's involvement with some shady characters and partly because he looks poor. Confusing appearance with criminal intentions is a trap that even Judy falls into at times. Upon seeing two hungry, unkempt men approach her school picnic, she automatically assumes they are criminals. Another of her friends points out that they may just be "two poor men out of work" (The Voice in the Suitcase). Judy's best friend Honey is forced to live with a cruel foster family when her mother dies shortly after childbirth. Lack of adequate medical care and malnourishment led her to premature death. It takes all of Judy's ingenuity to reunite her with some of her relatives so that she can live in a better home. Homelessness and illness also threaten Mrs. Piper in The Unfinished House. Her daughter is hospitalized with ring-worm and her husband has developed alcohol problems because he cannot find work. Judy is able to help her by exposing real estate con game that targets people like Mrs. Piper who are desperate for affordable housing.
Although most of the time Judy is sympathetic to people of various socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures, the critics have not always perceived her that way. Mary Cadogan and Patricia Graig, in their books You're a Brick, Angela!: A New Look at Girl's Fiction From 1839 to 1975 and The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction, deride the "tawdry romanticism which saturates the narrative" of the Judys and claim that Judy "is made to display a typical adolescent indignation about social distinctions." Other criticism leveled at the series include accusations of sentimentality and an overabundance of cliches. It's true that Honey does just happen to be forced to participate in a robbery near where her matemal grandparents live, and that Irene Lang discovers that her long-dead mother's mother was a well-off poet and she has been left a house in Brooklyn. Although these certainly are instances in which people find themselves in convenient places at just the right time or discover relatives about which they knew nothing, these are staples of adult mysteries as well as adolescent ones.
Arthur Praeger, in Rascals at Large, or, The Clue in the Old Nostalgia, one of the first studies of series characters, thought that "politically, Judy stood rather far to the right of Nancy [Drew]. She had no patience with the poor, and felt that they ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps." However, I agree with Bobbie Ann Mason who, in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, notes that "Judy is a liberal" and that the "books value order, a sense of place, balance, tolerance, rationality, self-knowledge, [and] sympathy" for those in trouble.
Further evidence of Judy's liberal attitude is reflected in her reactions to religions and cultures other than her own. In The Name on the Bracelet, Judy and Peter, her husband-to-be, try to catch someone by employing a tactic as old as Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. They run an advertisement for a job for a young woman, describing the position in such detail that only one person would fit it. Peter wants the advertising copy to read "refined Christian girl," but Judy objects, "I don't like mentioning religion. Maybe Jane isn't a Christian. I never asked her." As with her millworker friends, it is the individuals who matter, not the religion they espouse. In The Phantom Friend, Pauline Faulkner invites Judy to attend a church service, but then has second thoughts when she realizes that it's not like the one Judy attends at home. Judy responds, "I think it does a person good to learn different ways of believing." This interest extends to Hinduism in The Trail of the Green Doll, which focuses on the theft of statuettes of Hindu gods and goddesses. The key to the mystery involves understanding the relationship and significance of some of the deities.
A culture that Judy finds herself even more in sympathy with is the Ojibwas of upper Wisconsin. As she learns how opportunistic whites have stolen their land, forced them onto reservations, and tried to "educate" them out of their religious beliefs, she is disgusted by the creed and cruelty of her own race. Her detective work leads to the recovery of various cultural artifacts and an awareness of belief systems outside her own. At the end of The Sprit of Fog Island, an elder of the Ojibwas acknowledges her empathy during, a religious ceremony. "It is your Spirit as well as ours, whom we have gathered here to honor," he tells her.
Margaret Sutton, in the Judy Bolton series, espoused for the most liberal humanism that showed there is a value in people, classes, and cultures other than those of the white middle class. Although Judy realizes that she can't change the world with her actions, she feels she can make a difference in contributing to understanding among human beings. As she tells two of her friends in The Phantom Friend, "The way I look at it, other people's troubles are our troubles... what hurts one of us hurts all the rest. We can't isolate ourselves and pretend trouble doesn't exist." These sentiments make Judy Bolton a true role model, and all the more remarkable because she exists within the constraints of the adolescent detective fiction genre.
The Case of the Neglected Girl Sleuth: Margaret Sutton's Judy Bolton by Sally E. Parry was originally published in the now-defunct Judy Bolton Society newsletter. For reprints of the newsletters email Mike DeBaptiste. Reprinted with permission