It was the summer before I turned seven. A favorite activity for all of us kids in the neighborhood was to ride our bikes up to the TG&Y dime store in the local shopping center and usually just drool over all the toys in the children’s section. The distance between our block and the dime store was about a mile-and-a-half; we’d ride back streets to get there, avoiding the more direct, and busy, nearby U.S. Highway 61.
The shopping center included the TG&Y, a Beall’s department store, a Western Auto, a Mackenzie’s Bakery, and the anchor, the A&P grocery store. A few years later, a Katz & Bestoff (K&B) drug store was added on the western end.
As young as I was, I was reading beyond my years. I liked the dime store’s toys and games as much as anyone, but I also would wander over to where the children’s books were displayed in something like a magazine rack, with staggered rows so you could see all the titles. The books were for all ages, from toddler to young teen.
One Saturday, I rode by myself to TG&Y. I placed my 16-inch red bicycle on the pavement in front, secured by a kickstand. (This was a long time ago, when you didn’t think to have a bicycle lock. Why would you need one?) I made my way to the book display. I’d had my eye on one, and I had just enough money to buy it, including tax. It was all of 59 cents.
It was my first book purchase.
Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion was originally published by Julie Campbell Tatham (1908-1999) in 1948. Officially, it was a “girl detective novel,” so you didn’t exactly want to be with your friends when you bought it. It followed a long line of teen detective stories that had become wildly popular in the 1920s and 1930s – The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew being among the most well known.
I came to that book, a mystery with two 13-year-old girl detectives, because of television. Through various TV shows, both after-school programs (like the Mickey Mouse Club’s Hardy Boys segment) and primetime TV series, I discovered I liked mysteries. So why not read one? And this one had an added bonus – an old mansion that was probably haunted.
I brought the book to the checkout counter, made my purchase, the salesgirl bagged it, and I was on my way home. I was soon visiting the town of Sleepyside-on-Hudson in New York State, where the Belden family with its four children lived. Brian and Martin were older teens; Trixie was 13; and little brother Bobby was 5 or 6, and often the bane of Trixie’s young life.
It was a fully recognizable family, not unlike Ozzie & Harriet. Kids got into minor trouble, but it was easily resolved. Nobody was dysfunctional. Heroes and villains were easily identifiable, and they were never the same person. I don’t think Trixie’s mother ever vacuumed wearing a nice frock and pearls, like June Cleaver did on Leave It to Beaver, but her character is not unlike Beaver’s mother and Harriet Nelson.
A new family, the Wheelers, had just moved into the nearby large estate next to the Belden’s farm (Mr. Belden also worked at an office job). Also close by is the Frayne mansion, decaying ever since old Mr. Frayne’s wife had died. Mr. Frayne himself has just been taken to the hospital after being found by Trixie’s father at the foot of the long driveway.
I reread the story that I first read some 65 years ago. I wanted to see how much I remembered, how much I didn’t, and if I would like it as much as that kid did back in the late 1950s. I recalled three things: Bobby getting bitten by a copperhead; a fire where the only thing that’s saved (by Trixie, of course) is a mattress; and Mr. Frayne’s 15-year-old nephew Jim, who comes to Sleepyside to get away from a mean and brutal stepfather.
My memory was intact, including the overall arc of the story. Trixie and her new friend Honey Wheeler are a textbook example of opposites attracting. I thought I’d read more about Trixie’s two older brothers, but they’re both away at camp and don’t figure into the story. I remembered that Jim had red hair.
What I didn’t remember was that, while the story ends on a high note, it also ends with a couple of hanging threads, like what happens to Jim? If I want to find out, I have to read the next book in the series, The Red Trailer Mystery. Nice marketing ploy, that.
The author, Julie Campbell Tatham, wrote the first six books in the series. The next 33 were written by a variety of writers, typically using the pen name “Kathryn Kenny.” The books are still in print. Because I read an original edition published by Whitman Publishing in 1958, I don’t know if the more contemporary editions have been “modernized” or not. Some of that has happened with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Campbell Tatham also wrote the Ginny Gordon series at the same time she was writing the Trixie Belden books.
I found my copy of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion via a used bookstore online. It is exactly the same edition I bought when I was a kid, the one I carried home on my bike from TG&Y. I’m that almost-seven-year-old kid again, buying and enjoying the first book he ever bought for himself.
Top photograph by Eleanor Brooke via Unsplash. Used with permission.