I’ve posted here before about my love of the original girl sleuths, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. And I’ve also posted about my discovery of a new girl sleuth, the marvelous Flavia de Luce. I even wrote a DIK review here for first in the Flavia series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Well look out fans of girl sleuths, I’ve just discovered a new girl sleuth, Iris Anderson, who makes her debut in Kathryn Miller Haines’ The Girl is Murder, set in 1942 New York City.
The Girl is Murder is technically Young Adult fiction, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award for best young adult mystery. I don’t read a lot of YA literature, but thoroughly enjoyed Iris’ initial outing. On the surface Iris seems a bit like Nancy Drew. Her mother is dead, and Iris lives with her father and Mrs. Mrozenski who cooks for the family. But beneath the surface, Iris and Nancy are very different.
While Nancy Drew is through with school, 15-year old Iris is still a student. As the book opens, Iris is facing her first day in public school, as her father’s no longer able to pay the tuition for the pricey girls’ school she previously attended.
Iris’ mother didn’t die of some mysterious, never-mentioned cause; she committed suicide fairly recently, and Iris and her father are both still grieving. And Iris’s father? He’s not a paragon like Carson Drew. Iris’ “Pop” is a private investigator. He lost his leg in Pearl Harbor and is still on pain medications. Unable to do many of the physical tasks his job requires, he’s angry and struggles to make enough money to pay their rent. The two recently moved down to the Lower East Side of New York. Instead of being their housekeeper, Mrs. Mrozenski owns the home Iris and her Pop live in. To help with money, Iris gets the brilliant idea that she’ll help her father with his cases without his knowledge, or approval.
It’s not just in circumstances that Iris and Nancy differ. Nancy is a true paragon. Bobby Ann Mason, in her book The Girl Sleuth, says of Nancy, “The reader of a Nancy book is never allowed to forget that our heroine – gunning down the highway after a gang of crooks – is a sweet young lady who dresses nicely and enjoys having tea with little cakes.” She goes on to comment that, “Nancy manages the almost impossible feat of wholesomely “feminine” – glamorous, gracious, stylish, tactful –- while also proving herself strong, resourceful, and bold, the most independent of the girl sleuths.” Iris couldn’t be more different.
Irish is independent and bold. But she’s not loved – or even liked – by everyone. She doesn’t fit in at public school, and faces chants of “fresh meat” and taunts that she should go back to her private school. Iris does not have her father’s support to help with his cases, so she lies to him about what she’s doing and where she’s going. She lies to her classmates, telling some that she’s not Jewish, and others that her father is still in the war and that she’s living with her aunt.
Iris also gets involved in things I just don’t recall Nancy ever doing in her cases, including sneaking out to a dance club in Harlem. Iris’ detective efforts also don’t lead to nice resolutions. Sometimes there is no right side to a case, and sometimes bad people just get away with things.
As a young girl I wasn’t certain when or where the Nancy Drew mysteries were set. While some things seemed a bit old-fashioned, there wasn’t enough description to place them in any particular setting. Not so with The Girl is Murder. The setting – early 1942 New York City – is a vivid part of the book. Iris and Mrs. Mrozenski listen to the body counts on the radio from the early days of World War II, and Iris wonders how long the war might last. Speculation is rampant about an impending draft, and how it might affect the boys in Iris’ new ‘school. And the racism of the period – not just toward African Americans, but also against Italians and Germans – the enemies in the war – are constant reminders of the period.
Iris and her classmates use phrases such as “Hey Joe, what do you know?” and “The joint is jumping” and “oolie droolie,” placing them squarely in the early 1940s. And in case the reader doesn’t know what the language means, there’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book.
I was delighted to discover that we’re going to read more about Iris. The second book in the series, The Girl is Trouble, is scheduled for release in just a few weeks, on July 3. I know what I’ll be doing on July 4th! I really loved the first book in the series and am counting down the days to July 3.
– LinnieGayl Kimmel