March 28, 2008

Teen Teams In Mystery Novels

Stupid Question ™
July 4, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: Where did the idea of groups of teenagers solving crimes originate? By groups I mean like Scooby-Doo, not Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.

A: Team action has always been a nearly inviolate principle of juvenile mysteries. The reasons are both practical and abstract.

Primarily, children are too weak to credibly face danger alone. Juvenile mysteries also have always had an element of moral didacticism, which included pushing the virtue of teamwork.

The team scenario also allows for more character types, which allows a larger segment of the audience to find themselves in the story. And mysteries have always thrived on having sidekicks to emphasize the hero’s brilliance and serve as a sounding board for the mystery’s solution.

“Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”, a TV cartoon that ran from 1969 to 1986 under various incarnations, shows several of these traits. It had four teens and a talking dog solving mysteries. Fred was the father figure; Velma the brains; Daphne a living plot device who always got captured; Shaggy and the dog Scooby the weak-kneed but sympathetic proxies for normal viewers, who also would presumably be scared by monstrous villains.

The inspirations for “Scooby-Doo” cited by then-chief of CBS programming Fred Silverman are truly bizarre: the 1960s teen sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” and the 1939-1940 radio mystery series “I Love a Mystery,” which was about a hardboiled trio of ex-mercenaries who met in prison.

The only obvious product of this mating was Shaggy, a beatnik drawn from “Dobie Gillis’” Maynard G. Krebs character and featuring the superstition and excessive hunger of “I Love a Mystery’s” Doc Long.

In fact, “Scooby-Doo” simply continued a long tradition that goes back at least to the Baker Street Irregulars—six street urchins led by one Wiggins—who occasionally assisted Sherlock Holmes.

In the dime novels of the late 1800s, it was common for kids to work with their pals, sometimes on mysteries, and the practice continued as juvenile mysteries became a separate genre.

You definitely can’t throw out the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—both were very much team series, and enormously influential.

Frank and Joe Hardy, introduced by Edward Stratemeyer’s ghostwritten book factory in 1927, were joined by the jovial Chet Morton and athletic Biff Hooper in nearly every book. And there were at least three other regular members of their “gang,” typically representing various ethnic groups.

Likewise, Nancy Drew, also introduced by Stratemeyer in 1930, was never without her pals Bess and George (a female).

“Scooby’s” creators surely couldn’t miss the excellent “Three Investigators” series sold under Alfred Hitchcock’s brand name in the 1960s, featuring three pre-teens operating from an “office” beneath a junkyard.

There were also kids-and-a-dog series for “Scooby” to copy. The very popular Boxcar Children series, starting in 1942 and still ghostwritten today, featured four children and their dog Watch.

Another popular series, the Secret Seven (1949-1963) featured seven kids and their dog Scamper.

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