violet strange, the debutante detective

Following up on my last post, I have now read Anna Katharine Green’s stories about Violet Strange, the debutante detective.

See, right there it sounds funny, like something out of the “They Fight Crime” website that I talked about here. Going in with that expectation, though, I was surprised on a few different fronts.

For one thing, Miss Strange is not an upper-class amateur, like Philo Vance (who came along a few years later — Violet’s stories were published in 1915). She’s a professional private detective, working for a top agency. She works in secrecy, of course, because of her age and social position, and clients have to agree not to reveal her secret. If clients meet with her, though, it’s because everybody else has failed, so they’re willing to suspend their disbelief that this elegantly dressed teenage girl can help them.

The next surprise was that I had expected, given the setup I’ve just described, that the stories would be fairly light-hearted, maybe even goofy. The idea of a debutante detective reminded me of the movie DEBS (plaid-skirted teenage girl spies), and the spy stuff in that is pretty silly.

But no, the cases Violet solves are serious, some involving terrible family tragedy. A couple even move toward horror of the Edgar Allen Poe type. And Violet is much affected by all this, to the extent that a couple of times she is reluctant to take the next case because of how awful the last one was.

She does take the next case, of course, and it appears that the main factor is the money. Which is the overriding mystery which runs through the whole series: Why is Miss Violet Strange, daughter of the very wealthy Peter Strange, working for money, and at such a disreputable trade? Or is money not really the key after all?

Because she runs great risks to do this work — if her career were discovered it would mean not only the loss of social position and marriage prospects, but she would quite possibly be disowned by her father. There are places she cannot, with propriety, go, and people she cannot see without an escort (her brother, usually, who is clearly aware of her career and understands the reasons behind it).

So, in TV terms, that’s the arc, across all the stories, and there is an answer at the end, both to why she does it and to why she knew she’d be good at it. And, somewhat to her relief, that situation is resolved and she can retire.

Though it’s interesting to wonder about whether she ever needed those skills again, later on in her life…

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