Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Look What I Found: Beverly Gray and Connie Blair

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931. If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

Combing through the back room of the old lady’s house, picking through cardboard boxes of books that sighed puffs of dust, I felt like Nancy Drew.  Except that I was 48 years old, had a penis, and lacked a boyfriend named Ned waiting for me at the curb in his jalopy.  Other than that, I was 100 percent amateur detective, on the hunt for orphaned, abandoned, no-longer-loved books.  I would get to the bottom of this mystery—why nobody wanted these books on their shelves anymore—and, what’s more, I would rescue the victims of neglect.  I had philanthropic ideals.  I was like Nancy Drew out to save the whales.

I’d been to this house on Granite Street before.  It was like any number of perpetual “garage sales” that make monthly appearances in the Butte classified ads.  Folks in this town are so thrifty, they even recycle their garage sales.  Why buy a new sheet of price-tag stickers every four weeks when you can just keep the tables in place and pull the tarps off the caved-in boxes of cake decorating kits, Kenny Rogers cassette tapes and sad, ratty baby clothes which didn’t sell in June and probably won’t sell in July?  It’s all about garage-sale economics, buster.

The mistress of this house on Granite Street didn’t even live here.  Eleanor owned the early-20th-century house and used its rooms as a quasi-organized storage area for what had once been somebody’s family heirlooms. Every Saturday, she sold off pieces of past material lives for $1.25.  The tables laden with Christmas ornaments (angels missing a wing), ceramic poodle lamps, and stacks of LPs (Jim Reeves, anyone?) were laden with the litter from 1960s culture every month.  Same junk, different calendar page. 

I had been here several times before, helping my wife load our car with coffee tables, glass lamps (non-poodle), and ottomans leaking horsehair stuffing.  Each time we sneezed our way through the house, I inevitably made my way down the hall to a back room which was once a pantry or a small sitting room or perhaps some little boy’s bedroom.  It’s painted a yellow which once might have been named “Sunrise Ocher,” but which has since muddied to what could only be called “Baby Poop.”  Still, it’s the room which gets the best light and I’m always there at the time of day when the sunbeams are slanting through the windows, stirring the dust motes into full-on sparkle.

The room is dominated by a tower of cardboard boxes in the center of the room, ringed by an equally imposing fortress of boxes along the walls.  Inside those boxes are books, magazines and more than a few pellets of cockroach shit.  It’s hazardous to breathe in that room, but on this particular day, like a valiant Nancy Drew, I shrugged off the threat of lung-dust cancer and kept up the quest for new additions to my library.  I fanned through reams of TIME and Newsweek—the faces of Grace Kelly and Dwight D. Eisenhower flashing from the covers—and rifled through the stacks of mildewed Good Housekeeping and Western Horseman until I found what I was looking for: two vintage teenage mysteries, both with intact, barely-torn dustjackets.  Of course, I didn’t know I wanted them until I saw them, but that’s how this kind of treasure hunt plays out.  The books call to you from the fog of page-dust and you have no choice but to answer.

On this day, I heard Beverly Gray and Connie Blair calling my name.

If it’s not already obvious, I’ve always been a Nancy Drew kind of guy.  I knew of Cherry Ames by reputation (and, in my adult years, as the star of my R-rated nurse fantasies), but I never flirted with her or her friends Trixie Belden, Judy Bolton, and the Dana Girls.  I was singularly obsessed with Nancy (with occasional library check-outs of The Hardy Boys for sexual balance).

That’s why I was surprised and delighted to find two books featuring other girl detectives* in the back room of Eleanor’s house.  According to Wikipedia, the Beverly Gray books published between 1934 and 1955 "began as a series of school stories, and followed Beverly's progress through college, her various romances, and a career as a reporter before becoming strictly a mystery series."  The volume I found, Beverly Gray’s Island Mystery, was a later addition to the canon, published in 1952 shortly before Grosset and Dunlap canceled the series.  This site will give you more information on B.G., including the fact that the author, Clair Blank, wrote the first four books while she was still in high school (they were published one year after she graduated).  The plot, from what I could tell as I stood there sneezing sparkle-motes, concerned the mysterious** disappearance of Beverly’s friends from onboard a “graceful white yacht” in the South Pacific.  Another exotic locale!  Beverly’s bags are already packed and waiting by the front door.

Connie Blair seems to share Beverly’s taste in fashion and dependable men, not to mention her habit of always tripping into “puzzling circumstances.”  Written by Betsy Allen (the pen name of Betty Cavanna) and published by Grosset and Dunlap between 1948 and 1958, the Connie Blair books featured a heroine who, as a teenager, wins a position modeling clothes at an exclusive department store in Philadelphia.  In time, she gets a job as a secretary at an advertising firm and then works her way up to a more important position.  The mystery series was noted for its titles which always featured a color (sort of like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, but without the bikinis….At least, I don’t think Connie ever wore a bikini).  So, we get The Clue in Blue, The Riddle in Red, Puzzle in Purple, and so on.  Ms. Cavanna also apparently liked alliteration.

The volume I picked up, The Green Island Mystery, is fifth in the series of twelve books.  Unfortunately, it features one of the more lackluster covers.  That blouse she's wearing is definitely "Baby Poop."

The story opens with Connie sailing for Bermuda on an all-expenses-paid trip by her new employer.  It is, we learn on page 1, “miraculous, incredible, breathtaking.”  Of course it is.  That’s why it’s so appealing to the land-locked 12-year-old girl reading the book while sitting in her musty parlor in Kansas City as her father slowly reads the latest issue of TIME, Dwight D. giving a serious Cold War stare from the front cover.  Juvenile detectives were just like us….only prettier, richer, and luckier.  We longed to ride in their jalopies, our skis piled in the backseat, as the highway wind whipped through our hair all the way to Sun Valley.

....Oh, sorry.  Maybe that was just my fantasy.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Deerstalkers aren’t without their critics.  In The Girl Sleuth, the Connie Blair books in particular come under fire from Bobbie Ann Mason for their sexism.  Mason writes: “The series stresses appearance, popularity, and femininity as an I.D. card for entry into the business world.”  She cites a couple of examples from The Yellow Warning and The Silver Secret:
She put a hand on his arm and looked at him in a way that would have melted a stronger man.
She tried to look especially appealing and demure, because she wanted to get her information in a hurry.

Okay, fine.  But in Connie’s defense, she’s only mirroring the domestic stereotypes Hollywood was dishing out during those post-war years.  Can you blame her if she tightened her sweaters or melted men with her eyes in order to help Jeff, an enthusiastic young archaeologist, find a mysterious little man with a limp and a missing finger and who may hold the key to untold historical treasure***?

I say let Connie, Beverly, Nancy, Cherry, and Trixie go about getting their men (and villains) in their own way in the context of their own times.  Who’s to say sixty years from now we won’t be criticized for the outlandish detective methods of a cowdog named Hank or a rabbit named Bunnicula?  I just hope the as-yet-unborn book collector standing in the dust motes of my house in 2071 will appreciate the junky lit for the treasure that it is.  Maybe he'll even stumble across my Nancy Drews and say to himself, "What the hell's a jalopy?"

*Of course, there are many other junior-detective series from the 1930s and 40s, as this wonderful site will tell you.
**What disappearance isn’t mysterious?
***The Secret of Black Cat Gulch


  1. I don't believe it!!! I don't know what happened to the book, but my cousin gave me a couple of books that she had read, one of them was the "Beverly Gray Island Mystery". It was a real page turner for me when I was 12 years old.

    Carol Wong

  2. David, posts like this are why I like you so very much.