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Sunday 18 April 2021

You’re Never Too Young to Start...

 by Lynne Patrick

I suppose it all began with the Secret Seven. When this band of plucky youngsters weren’t feasting on home-made lemonade and ginger biscuits in the shed at the bottom of the garden, there was always some mystery or other in need of their attention. And I was the kind of child who infinitely preferred curling up with a good book to outdoor pursuits with my friends, so Peter, Janet, Pamela, Barbara, Jack, Colin and George became more like friends to me than the real ones.

From there it was a natural progression to the Famous Five, who were a bit older and solved even bigger mysteries – but my passion for the genre really took off when I was about ten and confined to barracks with a mild attack of mumps during the school holidays. Isolated to avoid passing the disease to my brother and sister, but not ill enough to disrupt my concentration, I was able to work my way through book after book for a full ten days with almost no interruption.

 My parents manfully met my demand with plenty of supply – and that, fellow reader, was when I discovered the Kay Tracey Mysteries. This little-known eponymous heroine has been disparagingly described as a Nancy Drew imposter, but for some unknown reason America’s most famous girl detective never crossed my youthful path. It was Kay Tracey and her faithful sidekicks, gentle poetry-writing Wilma and feisty, impatient Betty, who were my introduction to American mystery fiction.

Kay herself is courageous, resourceful, never backs away from a fight, and seems able to turn her hand to anything she chooses. In successive books she proves she can handle a boat, perform ballet and drive both a car and a horse-drawn sleigh; she’s a strong swimmer, a capable horse-rider and a member of the school gymnastics team. In one book she even identifies a poisonous spider and knows where to find the antidote. And of course, when it comes to joining the dots and solving the clues, she outclasses the police and every villain she encounters. Not especially out of the ordinary these days, perhaps, but when she first appeared, and indeed when I first discovered her, she served as an example all teenage girls could aspire to – one might almost say an early feminist.

My first encounter with Kay and her chums, as I revelled in the opportunity to spend all day in bed indulging my passion, was in The Mansion of Secrets. Over the next couple of years, Christmas and birthdays produced a further five: In the Sunken Garden, The Six-Fingered Glove Mystery, The Sacred Feather, The Mysterious Neighbours and When the Key Turned. By the time my friends and relations had exhausted the supply available from their local bookshops (this was some years ago, long before the advent of the internet) I was ready to move on to more substantial fare, so I was content to leave these new-found friends behind.

But I never quite forgot the series I still regard as my real introduction to mystery fiction. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered not long ago, not only that they were still available (my own copies had long gone to the great library stack in the sky) but that there were a lot more than I originally thought.

I did a little research and learned that the Kay Tracey Mysteries were not exactly what I thought they were. The author named on the cover, Frances K Judd, isn’t even an ordinary pseudonym; it’s a blanket name for no fewer than five women who between them produced a total of eighteen volumes in the 1930s and ’40s – a kind of teenage Golden Age series, you might say. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams created and supervised the series; her sister Edna Stratemeyer Squier contributed one title, and went on to create detailed plot outlines for all the others;
Elizabeth Mildred Duffield Ward, Mildred Wirt Benson and Anna Perot Rose Wright were each responsible for between two and thirteen of the books.

Despite the disparaging comparison with Nancy Drew, Kay Tracey clearly acquired a following. The books have been rediscovered by several different publishers and reprinted, and in some cases reworked, several times.

Characters have been renamed; in some versions, Wilma is called Wendy, and the trio's arch-rival Ethel becomes a less dated Chris. Most recently Fontana paperbacks, who also published the best-selling Alistair MacLean series, reissued six titles – and it was one of those which rekindled my interest in them. Three of my original collection are among those six, plus three more which until recently I didn't know existed.

Years have passed, and my taste in crime and mystery fiction has grown more sophisticated. But it's still something of a passion; something like three-quarters of my extensive book collection lies firmly in that genre. To a very great extent I owe that passion to an attack of mumps and the Kay Tracey Mysteries. It's good to know they're still out there somewhere, and that there are still quite a few I haven't read. And she's still an example young womanhood could follow – not to mention an excellent introduction to the wonderful world of crime fiction. After all, you're never too young to start developing a passion.

The complete Kay Tracey Mysteries, originally published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate:

The Secret of the Red Scarf, 1934

The Strange Echo, 1934

The Mystery of the Swaying Curtains, 1935

The Shadow on the Door, 1935

**The Six-Fingered Glove Mystery, 1936

**The Green Cameo Mystery, 1936

The Secret at the Windmill, 1937

Beneath the Crimson Briar Bush, 1937

**The Message in the Sand Dunes, 1938

When the Key Turned, 1939

The Murmuring Portrait, 1938

**In the Sunken Garden, 1939

The Forbidden Tower, 1940

The Sacred Feather, 1940

The Lone Footprint, 1941

**The Double Disguise, 1941

**The Mansion of Secrets, 1942

The Mysterious Neighbors, 1942

** indicates republished by Fontana in the 1980s.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.                                                


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