How to Be a Girl Detective

By Claudia McCarronDecember 26, 2020

How to Be a Girl Detective
MAKING IT AS A GIRL sleuth isn’t easy. Unless you’re Nancy Drew, with her lawyer father and clean-cut, middle-American existence, no one really wants you around. Think of Louise Fitzhugh’s grumpy, standoffish Harriet, or the irrepressible Turtle Wexler in Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game (1978). In these and other examples of the girl detective genre, daring deeds and ingenious investigations exist side by side with a poignant quest for identity. How can their heroines grow up and succeed, these works ask, when everyone around them seems determined to quash their spirited talents?

In stories of girl detectives, there are two ways that the central question of identity gets resolved: the heroine appears either as a polite, well-bred woman who happens to have a knack for investigative work, or as an adventurous tomboy ahead of her time who takes advantage of the masculine behaviors and privileges her female peers are too prudish to accept. Nancy Drew, who lacks the soul-searching character arc found in most girl detective stories, is an excellent example of the former trend. Nancy’s identity as a paragon of feminine pluck is never called into question, leaving her free to be both feminine and an amateur detective. Turtle Wexler takes a different tack, immersing herself in the traditionally masculine sphere of big business, her solution of the mystery launching her on a promising corporate career.

Enola Holmes, the 2020 film adaptation of Nancy Springer’s YA series featuring Sherlock’s younger sister, tackles this question of identity with a sense of fun that masks the importance of its contribution to the genre. The movie, released on Netflix on September 23, creates a complex character arc for its heroine that illustrates not only a change in the treatment of the girl detective, but also a broader cultural shift in how girlhood is conceptualized and understood.

In Springer’s novels, which began with The Case of the Missing Marquess in 2006, Enola is tart and delightfully snobbish. Millie Bobby Brown, who produced Enola Holmes, adds a layer of childish innocence to the character that underlines her impulsiveness, giving a poignancy to the impossible choices she is forced to make. The film borrows from the conventions of the Victorian age, coding masculinity as rationality and reliance on facts, and femininity as instinctual emotion. Enola can only find satisfaction and an outlet for her investigative talents when she rejects these conventions and creates a space for herself that allows her to make use of both her impressive education and her impulse for empathy and compassion.

At the start of the film, viewers would be hard-pressed to find a more likely candidate for the tomboy role than Enola. Introduced madly biking toward the railway station sans hat and gloves, she narrates a lightning-fast string of flashbacks that depict her isolated and unusual upbringing with her now-missing mother, a woman determined to raise an independent daughter. Enola’s education focused on reading, science, and jiujitsu, leaving no room for embroidery, dance, or the other trappings of upper-class Victorian girlhood. “Mother said we were free to do anything at Ferndell, and be anyone,” Enola tells viewers, in one of the fourth-wall-breaking moments that give the film much of its charm.

This rather rosy view of Victorian life is shattered by the arrival of Enola’s brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, to assist in the search for their mother. “My God,” Mycroft groans, “You’re in such a mess.” He’s plainly more interested in picking apart her manners and education than he is in finding his mother, spending most of his time decrying the state of the house before deciding to ship his sister off to finishing school. “A wild and dangerous woman brought up a wild child” is the verdict he reaches within Enola Holmes’s first 15 minutes, and he doesn’t budge from this judgment.

Sherlock is more tolerant of his sister’s peculiarities, connecting with her because of her intelligence and skills in deductive reasoning — in other words, the qualities that remind him most of himself — though he does chide her for being “emotional” when she tells him she wants her mother back. Sherlock clearly cares for Enola, but he dismisses her traditionally feminine qualities as easily as Mycroft sneers at her masculine ones. Between her two brothers, Enola is caught in the same binary governing the girl detective genre as a whole. While Mycroft would prefer that she smother her intellectual gifts and become a stereotypical Victorian housewife, Sherlock encourages her to develop her intellect at the expense of the prickly, loving heart that may be her greatest asset.

Perhaps motivated by her regard for Sherlock, Enola disguises herself as a boy during the first leg of her journey. Fleeing from Ferndell and her brothers, she sets her sights on London, tangling with a runaway marquis and a murder plot along the way. When she reaches the city, she soon realizes that locating her mother will take more than a male disguise. “If I am to fit in,” she says, “I must become something unexpected.” She then heads into a dress shop to undertake a new transformation.

Earlier in the film, Enola had matched wits with a headmistress called in by Mycroft, and her transformation now from tomboy to well-dressed lady slyly references these previous scenes. “These clothes will not imprison,” Miss Harrison had insisted when Enola called the corset and hoop skirt she was expected to wear ridiculous, “they will free.” While Miss Harrison certainly wasn’t thinking about detective work, her remark raised a valid point that Enola later exploits for her own purposes. Dressing as a respectable lady, as she now does, opens previously unavailable social spaces, providing a level of trust she can leverage in her investigations (for example, when she dresses as a widow to investigate the attempt on the marquis’s life).

Disguising herself as a proper lady also gives Enola an excuse to access the emotions Sherlock had derided. While acting out the feelings of widows and respectable women, she discovers that her gut instincts and care for others can prove just as important to her detective work as her sharp intellect. “Sometimes,” she tells the young marquis as they prepare to confront his would-be murderer, “you have to dangle your legs in the water to attract the bloody sharks!” Abandoning Sherlock’s cool demeanor for a more hot-blooded approach, Enola still manages to uncover the perpetrator and right a wrong.

As nuanced as the film’s portrayal of Victorian femininity is, it’s also very clear about its limits. The strictures of Enola’s environment prompt a shift that marks her search for identity as a turning point in the girl detective genre. If Enola wants to succeed as a sleuth, she can’t be solely feminine or masculine, entirely emotional or logical. The class divides and societal expectations she faces are too rigid for that. Crafting her identity as a detective requires a more fluid approach, one that allows her to switch from male to female dress at the drop of a hat, to moderate her tomboyishness with caution and social know-how, and to leaven her insights with compassion and conviction.

It’s also an approach that leaves her a bit of an outcast at the movie’s end. Such a resolution is impossible to imagine for Turtle or Nancy — where would these girls be without River Heights or Westing Paper Products? But Enola is a different breed of girl detective, recognizing that the support she can command from her society isn’t enough to make her whole. Society always demands some measure of conformity to a standard set of behaviors, and that isn’t something she’s willing to give. So she ends the film as she began it, bicycling toward an uncertain future. She knows who she is, and she also knows that this identity is something her world can’t yet accept.

If Enola ends her journey less secure in herself than her literary precursors, she is also more reactive, challenging her society instead of clinging to it. Existing outside conventional Victorian mores, she doesn’t have a vested interest in propping up the institutions that support them. “Perhaps it’s the world that needs changing,” she tells Sherlock. Her ending may be uncertain, but it is also gloriously hopeful. Enola has rescued the marquis, clearing the way for him to cast a critical vote for the Reform Bill. She has earned the love and respect of Sherlock, and has even managed to find some closure regarding her mother’s disappearance. “The future is up to us,” she tosses over her shoulder as she rides away. The movie ends with a sense of grand possibility, a promise that one day the world may be able to accept her.

In the 21st century, Enola’s hopes are still more aspiration than reality, but the very existence of a journey like hers is a reason to hope. Detective stories often function as a pressure valve for cultural anxieties, opening with some wrongdoing or corruption, only to resolve it and lay it to rest. Enola Holmes can be read as a response to the uncertainty surrounding contemporary girlhood. Young women today are battered by as many expectations and contradictions as those of the 19th century. Their tastes and desires are endlessly derided; they’re criticized as too independent or not independent enough. More choices don’t necessarily equate to more freedom or respect. Enola Holmes creates a space for these uncertainties, showing how difficult it can be to establish an adolescent identity while still assuring its youthful viewers that crafting a life for themselves and fighting for its legitimacy are worthwhile enterprises. Girlhood can be fluid, the film suggests, and our daughters don’t have to be bound by the same expectations that plague us. It’s up to us.


Claudia McCarron is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, the Ploughshares blog, Avidly, and elsewhere. She is also the coauthor of Hey, Kid!, a monthly newsletter discussing children’s literature, film, and entertainment. She lives in West Virginia.

LARB Contributor

Claudia McCarron is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, the Ploughshares blog, Avidly, and elsewhere. She lives in West Virginia.


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