April 2005

Colleen Mondor


The Lost Girl Detectives: A Profile of Margo Rabb

Five years ago Margo Rabb gave a reading of one of her short stories at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. (It was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly and anthologized in Best New American Voices 2000.) The story featured a fifteen-year-old narrator and afterwards an editor approached Margo and asked if she had any ideas for a young adult series. A few months later she wrote up a proposal for four books about two sisters who grew up in New York City and end up in a small Midwestern town. It was sold to Penguin and published last year under the Speak imprint as the Missing Persons series, featuring the crime solving, orphaned and Jewish Shattenberg sisters.

It’s not hard to understand why any writer would find a way to respond positively when asked by an editor if they have considered writing in a specific genre. And even though Margo had no ideas for the Missing Person series at the time of her reading, she was very excited at the idea of writing for young adults. In fact, Margo Rabb was the perfect person to approach with this idea because from a very young age she has dreamed of being a girl detective. Her creations, Sam and Sophie Shattenberg, are just the closest she has been able to get to achieving it.

So, time for full disclosure. I was a rabid girl detective fan when I was growing up. Like Margo I wanted to be Nancy Drew for the longest time, although my attraction to the titian-haired sleuth of River Heights was more for her cool car and spunk than anything else. Margo found the series to have a different appeal, however. “I always wanted to be a girl detective,” she wrote me recently. “My main fantasy involved wearing what I believed to be the epitome of girl-detective fashion (black miniskirt, tights and knee-high boots) as I crept through the dark with a flashlight, solving perplexing cases that thwarted the police.” I had to do a double-take when I read this as Kelly Link’s short story collection Stranger Things Happen was lying on the desk beside me with its very Nancy Drewesque cover facing up. There is Link’s girl detective, and the subject of a story by the same name, holding her flashlight while wearing blue sweater, brown skirt and black Mary Jane pumps in the middle of a mysterious black forest. And in Bennett Madison’s brand new foray into the genre, Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls, his heroine, Lulu has her own flashlight held high while also managing to wear dark sunglasses, a trench coat and red striped sweater. Clearly Margo nailed one of the key requirements to the girl detective genre quite early: you have to look good if you want to get the bad guys!

But as any true fan of the genre knows, it isn’t just the clothes or witticisms that attract and keep readers; it’s the quality of the mysteries and the appeal of the main characters. And that is something Margo has spent a lifetime studying. Although she has always enjoyed Nancy Drew, faithfully playing their version of the detective game with her sister throughout her early years, her favorite detective growing up was actually Sherlock Holmes. Later she became hooked on Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series, along with all the predictable television haunts of the 1980s mystery fan: Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Hawaii Five-O, etc. But when she became a serious writer it was as a short story writer, an adult writer, no crime solvers, teenage or otherwise, involved. She had to put aside her adult short story collection when she decided to embark on the Missing Persons series, but she doesn’t regret her choice. In a way, the girl detective books are the ones that have always meant the most to her, and the ones she thinks carry a big significance for readers.

“Since I started out as a literary short story writer, some acquaintances spoke to me as if I was crazy for writing for young adults in a commercial way, as if it’s a dishonor to my craft,” she writes. “But young adult novels, and mysteries, were so important to me as a kid and teenager. The books that I read at that age affected me very deeply, and I remember those books more vividly than some books I read last year.”

Any Nancy Drew fan will agree with that last statement, along with the Trixie Belden, Judy Bolton, Hardy Boys, Three Investigators and even the Tom Swift crowd. There is a resonance that these books carry into adulthood, a sensory memory that devotees of the genre cling to as much as baseball fans continue to root for their favorite team and a table-full of hungry holiday guests will demand the absolute same style stuffing that Grandma used to make… exactly. Whether or not we are all dwelling in some sort of childhood fantasy world is up for debate, but I happen to think that reading a good book, no matter the target age, is a good thing. And as Margo discovered, writing in this genre can also teach an author a thing or two about their craft.

“It’s so hard to write a novel, and a mystery is a great form to learn on. I wrote a detailed plot and chapter outlines for Missing Persons before writing drafts of the books, which I’d never done before. I outlined the new novel I’m writing now first and that was a great help with the process.”

This outline is something that she probably would not have done without the experience of the young adult series behind her. There were also a few lessons to be found in the fine art of plotting.

“There is something wonderful about the young adult genre in that it generally has to be fast moving, without a character gazing out the window or drinking a glass of water for fifteen pages, which can happen with literary fiction. I learned a lot about plot from writing these books; plot is very important to me as a reader, as well. There is nothing in the world like tucking into a cozy mystery novel on a rainy day, to escape into another world. And the need to escape is very real.”

This then is where we begin to understand just how Margo Rabb could so completely, and beautifully, capture the girl detective “formula” with her books. Sam and Sophie Shattenberg are Jewish and from New York, just like Margo and her sister. Their more personal habits might be entirely fictional as they like to play their own version of Scrabble, Sam turns to Yoo Hoo in a crisis and Sophie is devoted to reading about lost poets (Edna St. Vincent Millay is a favorite it seems) and writing in her journal. They dress like every other teenager in Middle America, make questionable food choices and have numerous and complicated issues with boys. (This spot-on attention to detail might be due to Margo’s own affinity for the age group. As she puts it, “I’m very in touch with my inner teenager!”) But the most engaging and enduring aspect of the series is the way in which Sam and Sophie, as orphans, address their grief. This is something Margo is all too aware of, because it is something that she and her characters share. In fact she intentionally chose to focus not only on the mysteries in each book (missing pets, missing son, missing popular girl, missing long lost love, etc.), but also on the sisters’ lives. This is something that was always notoriously missing in the Nancy Drew books (what the hell happened to her mother?), but Margo hits it head on.

"When I read a mystery, I love turning pages because of the plot and guessing the outcome of the mystery, but my favorite part is learning about the characters’ lives. As a writer, too, that is the most interesting part for me. I wanted Sam and Sophie to be characters that I would enjoy reading about, and to have them deal with real issues, like the loss of their parents. Since my sister and I did lose both our parents fairly early (although not as early as Sam and Sophie), I wanted to write about what grief really feels like.”

This is not to suggest that the books are depressing or sad in any way, they are just realistic, something that has been noticeably missing from this genre for a long time. One of the reasons that I have always favored Judy Bolton, who appeared at the same time as Nancy Drew but never captured her following, is that Judy aged in her books, she dated, she got married, but she kept solving mysteries. They were characters that I could identify with more because they had lives that I could compare myself to. Nancy, well, you have to love Nancy but there is nothing realistic about that babe. That might be why I am completely in love with Kelly Link’s riff on Ms. Drew in Stranger Things Happen. She sends her to the Underworld in search of her missing mother. Now that is a mystery I can get behind!

So who does Margo Rabb write her mysteries for? Well, the direct appeal is for those curious and a little bit devilish young girls, all of whom suspect that there is something going on and they are just the ones to get to the bottom of it. But also she knows she is aiming for another audience, a more mature audience. The short story that started all of this, the one with the fifteen year old narrator, sold to both Seventeen and Shenandoah, proving a healthy crossover appeal. In that case, she says “my narrator is talking to both teens and adults looking back on their teen selves.” As for the Shattenberg sisters, Margo thinks that publishers could benefit from marketing teen books to adults more often and as she puts it, “I have found some people look down on this, but just saying I wrote a series of girl detective novels gives me a little thrill -- I guess it’s the next best thing to actually being a girl detective, my ultimate fantasy.”

What she has discovered in writing these books is that she is not alone in that fantasy world. We are out there, we are out there in those mini-vans and SUVs; we’re sipping a latte in Starbucks or pushing a shopping cart through the local grocery store. We are wearing sunglasses, and sneakers or sunglasses and high heels, or even, sunglasses and flip flops. Today I wore sunglasses and boots. We all have flashlights in our cars. We know that we are grown-ups; we know we have responsibilities, but still, we can’t help thinking about it just for a minute, daydreaming at the stop light or while we wait to pick up the kids. We can’t help thinking that there was another life for us out there, something we were supposed to do. We are the lost girl detectives, and there are millions of us. Just ask us once about Red Gate Farm or Trixie and Honey. Ask us, and just like Margo Rabb, you will know.

Girl detectives never really grow-up, we just find mysteries a little closer to home, like in a bookstore, in a series marketed to teenagers. Ultimately, it’s all about acknowledging who you are in the world, and Margo Rabb is okay with her choices. Next up is her almost completed short story collection and then her novel. After that, she just might be returning to the Shattenberg sisters. Real fans, you see, can never stay away. This is a wonderful thing for the rest of us out here who are waiting for another good turn with the girls with the flashlights.