Judy Bolton was the protagonist of a popular girls mystery series. Unlike contemporary series produced by syndicates and ghost-writers using pseudonyms, the Judy Bolton series was created and written entirely by Margaret Sutton. Grosset & Dunlap initially published four volumes in 1932, then printed one per year through 1967 for a total of 38 volumes. Many of the stories were based on real events, sites, and Sutton's or her acquaintances' experiences. The books appealed to readers because Judy Bolton was more realistic than other series sleuths. Four million copies of Judy Bolton books sold before the series was canceled.
Sutton wrote her first books before the Nancy Drew series was published, but Grosset & Dunlap was not interested in her idea. Sutton was told how syndicate books were written, and she declined to write formulaic plots. Because of Nancy Drew's popularity, girl detective stories became marketable, and an editor at Grosset & Dunlap contacted Sutton about publishing the Judy Bolton tales. In 1932 The Vanishing Shadow, The Haunted Attic, The Invisible Chimes, and Seven Strange Clues were issued. More interested in literary craft than commercial success, Sutton's writing did not resemble the contents of mass marketed books sold in other series. Judy Bolton differed from other detective heroines in girls series books because she realistically grew up and was not frozen at a specific age. She was also concerned about social issues and sensitive to members of other socioeconomic classes and cultures. Judy chose her friends and cases because she was interested in those people and wanted to improve their living conditions. Although she was not as popular as Nancy Drew, she provided a stronger role model for readers.
In the first book, Judy, a doctor's daughter, was a red-haired, 15 year-old high school student living in northwestern Pennsylvania during the 1930s. Judy wanted to be a detective, explore the world, and solve problems, but her life remained ordinary, sometimes disappointing, and not spectacular like Nancy Drew's. In the series, Judy aged to 22 years old, graduated from high school and college, worked, married, and accepted adult responsibilities. This maturation did not limit her adventures or inquisitiveness and reinforced the reality of her stories unlike other series in which characters were static and artificial. Judy traveled and met new people, establishing relationships beyond her family. She confronted social issues and displayed tolerance and acceptance of others. Judy Bolton was also depicted as sometimes being outspoken, temperamental, and capable of making mistakes, causing her to appear more human to readers, who could identify with Judy more than with flawless detectives such as Nancy Drew. Judy relied on her intellect, not her appearance, and used her ability to surmount obstacles instead of counting on material goods or family connections like Nancy Drew. Judy persistently sought the truth with the help of her cat Blackberry, brother Horace, friend Honey, or romantic partner Peter Dobbs, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who considered Judy his equal. They liked to solve mysteries together.
The Judy Bolton series successfully endured for three decades. Grosset & Dunlap canceled the series after number 38, The Secret of the Sand Castle, was published in 1967. Sutton believed that Grosset & Dunlap capitulated to pressure from the Stratemeyer Syndicate because Judy Bolton ranked second to Nancy Drew in sales. The monopolistic syndicate disliked competitors and discouraged Grosset & Dunlap from advertising and distributing series books. Sutton also claimed that the syndicate had stolen plots and titles from her books for their series. She had planned a thirty-ninth book, The Strange Likeness, set in the Panama Canal Zone where Judy gave birth to twins Peter and Pam.
Scholars have scrutinized the Judy Bolton books for themes and symbolism, praising the sound plots, thrilling pace, realism, and social commentary. Some critics have labeled Judy as a feminist who was an independent thinker; a confident, capable person who resented restrictions based on gender. They have identified such recurrent series themes as the problems of urbanization and the search for identity. Scholars stressed that Judy's encounters with stereotypes about ethnic and religious groups and awareness of class consciousness addressed timeless issues that would impact readers of all generations. Judy challenged prejudices and attempted to understand circumstances so that she could change them. The books provided commentary about child labor, unsafe work conditions, unemployment, and elitism. For example, Judy cleverly hosted a costume party so that members of different social classes did not know the identity of each other and mingled. Although the books never mentioned the Depression during which they were created, many of the mysteries were connected to economic conditions, situations, and motivations.
The Judy Bolton books were nostalgic collectibles for adult women. Marcia Muller, pioneering author of hard-boiled detective novels featuring the savvy female protagonist Sharon McCone, revealed that Judy Bolton was her favorite teenage girl detective because Judy seemed real and could speak for herself. Muller also stated that the Judy Bolton mysteries were interesting and not improbable like other series. In 1985, author Kate Emberg and a group of collectors formed the Judy Bolton Society which published the Judy Bolton Society Newsletter. This group became the Society of Phantom Friends, named for the thirtieth volume in the series, and its newsletter, The Whispered Watchword, discussed Judy Bolton and other series books. Every summer the Margaret Sutton Weekend enabled fans to visit book sites. The Phantom Friends developed a friendship with Sutton and presented her their Life Achievement Award. Emberg wrote and published a new Judy Bolton, The Whispering Belltower, with Sutton's permission, and The Talking Snowman was co-written by Sutton and Linda Joy Singleton. Phantom Friends Melanie Knight, Rosemarie DiCristo, and Linda Tracy compiled the Guide to Judy Bolton Country, a comprehensive reference manual about all aspects, major and trivial, of the Judy Bolton books. Judy Bolton fans have also created internet sites about the popular character and the local school in Sutton's hometown painted a mural of Judy Bolton for an art and history project. Because the Judy Bolton series was out of print, Applewood Books and Aeonian Press published facsimile reprints in the 1990s. Avid collectors, including Sutton, continue to search for original volumes in used bookstores.
—Elizabeth D. Schafer
Mason, Bobbie Ann. The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide. Old Westbury, New York, The Feminist Press, 1975.