How Detective Shows Changed My Life


When you're 7 years old, you don't ask too much of the media you consume. A good laugh, cute animals, maybe some vivid colors to inspire your imagination -- I wasn't setting out to find a feminist hero.

Until I met Nancy Drew courtesy of a six-pack of books my mom bought from Costco, the characters I looked up to were all Disney's leading ladies -- Snow White, Belle, Perdy from 101 Dalmations, Duchess from Aristocats. While I admired certain character traits about them, like Alice's sense of adventure and Belle's love of books, their dependence on a prince to find their happy endings seemed in no way relatable or desireable to me. That's not to say that I was a woke second-grade feminist who spent her afternoons marching for equal rights, but instead, I was a shy, self-proclaimed bibliophile whose biggest adventures took place within the confines of my imagination.

So when I first read The Secret of the Old Clock and welcomed Nancy's blonde bob and magnifying glass into my life, I was instantly enamored. Here was a woman I could imagine, a woman I wanted to be; unlike the Disney princesses before her, Nancy was the captain of her own adventure. Smart, determined, curious, Nancy's value rested in her brain rather than her looks. She chased haunted stagecoaches, caught cat thieves, traveled the world foiling jewel heists and escaping the grasp of kidnappers. She remained loyal to her friends, and while she had a relationship, it didn't define her. She didn't need saving; what she needed was a good magnifying glass and enough coffee to keep her awake during stakeouts.

Like any true fangirl, my obsession has only continued to grow over the last two-plus decades, encouraged by an array of on-screen detectives worthy of Nancy Drew's legacy. And while Nancy was the first female detective to cross my path, she's far from the only one to make history.

In 1856, 23-year-old Kate Warne took her place as the first real-life female private investigator in the United States, later rising to become the superintendent of the female bureau of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In Warne's wake came fictional counterparts such as Mrs. Gladden, from Andrew Forrester's 1864 series The Female Detective, the controversial Mrs. Paschal in Revelations of a Lady Detective, and later, Agatha Christie's famous spinster sleuth, Miss Marple.

A more modern compendium of fictional detectives shows just how far women in mysteries have come. There's Veronica Mars, Phryne Fisher from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the female codebreakers of The Bletchley Circle, and D.S. Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, all uniquely continuing the legacy of female detectives.

Fictional detectives have the distinct advantage of omniscience, capable of moving the mystery along at a pace satisfying to an average reader or viewer. It’s certainly a far reach from my life in Brooklyn, where the only mystery is why my neighbors upstairs always sound like they’re dropping furniture. Even as a detective show junkie, I can’t relate to the time that Phryne Fisher took down a cocaine ring, or when Miss Marple apprehended the murderer of a rising actress. But the reason I keep tuning in is because when watching the adventures of fictional female detectives, I see other career women using their voices to make a difference in their male-dominated workplaces. That's a feeling I can relate to on a daily basis.

So when an engineer takes it upon himself to mansplain my job back to me in a meeting, I channel my inner Nancy Drew, my spirit animal Phryne Fisher, and keep fighting -- both for myself and the other women of my profession. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m a female in tech, rather than shy away, because by being myself, I’m representing half the users, half the viewers, of the world.

As I've grown older, detective shows have become equal parts empowering and entertaining. What my ongoing love affair with mysteries has taught me is to observe the world around you, spot the inconsistencies, and don't be shy about exposing those inconsistencies. While some people lean on religion or poetry for guidance and comfort, I credit the characters behind the magnifying glass for teaching me some of my best life lessons. Like: Never blackmail someone who's rigging volleyball championships. That absolutely never works.

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Carly Lanning is a freelance journalist and YouTube Trends Researcher living in Brooklyn. Follow her for pie photos and cat videos on Twitter @CarlyLanning.