A Typical American Girl

The Dorothy Dixon miniseries by Dorothy Wayne

Dorothy Dixon isn’t a Girl Sleuth — she’s Super Woman.

Sure, other Girl Sleuths also pilot motor launches, fly airplanes, get kidnapped, rescue hostages, keep house for widowed fathers, catch spies and smugglers (and fence, run, shoot, box, and practice jiu jitsu) but do they do these things and still carry a full academic load in high school, take the lead in the high school play, write short stories, and win swimming races at the local country club? All at the same time?

Of course, other Girl Sleuths don’t live across the road from a Boy Hero with his own series, either.

It all starts with Bill Bolton, the Flying Midshipman. Bill, supposedly a student at the Naval Academy, spends far more time working for the Secret Service than he does studying. In the BB titles I own, he hasn’t gone to class once, although he has spent a lot of time rescuing slaves from a labor camp in the Everglades, rescuing his widowed father from a nefarious plot, and chasing spies.

Shortly after the beginning of the Bill Bolton series Bill, his father, and his plane all move to New Canaan, Connecticut, where one of the first things he has to do is to rescue Dorothy when she takes her sailboat out on Long Island Sound and is caught in a storm. The second thing he does is to teach her to fly, and we’re off!

The four resulting books are so closely tied to reality in setting that I kept looking at a map as I followed the action. Dorothy’s “Short Story Club” is advised by “Noel Sainsbury, the writer” (and author of the Bill Bolton series); Dorothy is named after his wife (the Dorothy Wayne whose byline is on the DD books); Dorothy’s dog is named after a real-life dog (to whose owner the fourth volume is dedicated); and every road, lake, and park area featured in the action really exists.

On the other hand, large portions of the first volume really exist, too — as a pilot’s manual. You could probably learn to fly from this book.

Dorothy Dixon Wins Her Wings

Dorothy and her banker father live in Connecticut, in a household that includes a cook, a maid, and a gardener/chauffeur. Dorothy, a junior at New Canaan High School, oversees this household, does the marketing, and (it being summer vacation) spends a lot of time in or on Long Island Sound with her friends, or rehearsing her part in the upcoming “Silvermine Sillies”, a variety show put on by the nearby artists’ colony. (Incidentally, although all the books mentioned here are copyright 1933, the Depression is never mentioned once. Prohibition gets passing notice.)

Dragged out of the stormy Sound one afternoon by Bill in his amphibian plane, a wet and newly aviation-crazy Dorothy returns home to discover that (a) the Boltons are her new neighbors and (b) her father’s bank has been robbed.

In the course of finding the robbers, the pair have the first of many disagreements as to who is in charge of the expedition — it’s one of the charms of this series that they always have to settle this issue before starting the adventure. Although Dorothy says that her father “hasn’t much confidence in girls’ views on what he calls ‘the practical side of life’ — mine especially” it becomes apparent that she has already studied in a number of non-traditional fields, including boxing. She is, she says, “better at first aid than at Latin.”

She stops to fix her makeup and comb her hair before sneaking up on the outlaw’s hideout, but (after one of the gang turns out to be an undercover man from Scotland Yard, who sets the pair free and then is captured himself) she turns the machine gun on Bill’s plane on the cabin. Now, when did Nancy Drew ever solve a problem that way?

Interlude:

Bill Bolton and the Winged Cartwheels

Dorothy is a secondary character in this, the fourth Bill Bolton, which takes place a few weeks after her own first adventure. Her houseguest is kidnapped, and while Bill and the girl’s fiancee jump into action, Dorothy copes with domestic crisis: the maids have left, objecting to the broken windows in the living room, the gun battle in the dining room, and even to the arson on the bedroom floor. Dorothy hires part-time help for the housework and becomes cook for the duration, even going so far as to bake yeast rolls for her father’s breakfast.

Don’t get your feminist hackles up, though: she’s well-advised to avoid this plot. Even the protagonists have trouble accepting the story line, which involves a disappointed Presidential candidate bent on getting revenge by addicting the entire nation to cocaine.

In the course of events, Bill explains that he has withdrawn from Annapolis because the Secret Service needs him more, and that he and Dorothy aren’t a couple, because “I’m seventeen and she’s a year younger. Neither of us is thinking about getting married, or anything like that” adding, “It must be awful to be in love.” To which his friend replies “Gee, I forget you’re really only a kid.” The reader has to agree: Bill is not your average teenager.

Dorothy Dixon and The Mystery Plane

It’s later the same summer, Dorothy has her pilot’s license (and her own plane) and the Silvermine Sillies are ready to open. Dorothy is “wildly excited” about the latter but between dress rehearsal and performance, she gets caught in fog over the Sound when she tries to trail another plane. Surviving a thunderhead (and chloroform wielded by the crew of the strange plane), she runs into Bill, who is trailing diamond smugglers. She cooks dinner. He washes dishes. They have the usual squabble about who is in charge, and try to head home, only to be caught in a sleet storm (this is being a very violent August in New York), spring a leak, and end up cast ashore on an island.

Things get a bit confused after this. There’s an aerial dog fight, Dorothy’s triumph in the Sillies, the disappearance of her friend Terry, Bill’s rescue of Terry and Dorothy’s rescue of Bill, a tunnel, a blow to the head (but it turns out she hit her head on a beam crawling through a tunnel looking for the boys) and a Secret Service man.

Dorothy Dixon Solves the Conway Case

One lovely fall weekend, Dorothy and friend Betty are invited to tea by a friend in Peekskill. Dorothy prefers to fly, but inexplicably she forgets to check her fuel tank (and “these planes just drink gas”). They are downed on Pound Ridge and it comes on to rain. Dorothy complains that “this ducky dress I’m crazy about has a rip in the skirt a yard long” and declares that “never again would she board her plane shod in pumps.” but the only way out is to walk. Betty isn’t a good sport about it. She really hates tramping through muddy woods in the dark and rain, especially when she’s not dressed for it. She’s also upset that Dorothy isn’t carrying a gun (“I admit I’ve carried one on occasion, but never when I’m going to tea”).

They happen on a mysterious cabin in which a young man is being held captive and they rescue him; they call Terry for transportation, and he brings Bill with him. Dorothy cooks for everyone again (I really can’t recall Nancy doing so much cooking) and Terry takes Betty home. Bill and Dorothy set off to reclaim her plane (having settled it that she is calling the shots this time) with cans of aviation fuel they have providentially found in the barn. Oh, dear, the bad guys haven’t gone away — they’ve staked out the plane. So, still wearing a silk dress, pumps, and a flying helmet, Dorothy takes to the woods, climbs a cliff, and eventually arrives at the temporary home of “Uncle Abe Lincoln Rivers” who is living on park land, having been cheated of his pension by aforesaid bad guys. Being by no means as slow and foolish as he often lets the white folks think he is, Abe hides our pair, covers for them when the following party catches up, feeds them (Dorothy and Bill clean house and wash dishes in return) and in the morning provides directions to the ranger station.

A standoff with guns is resolved when the crook’s cook (a friend of Uncle Abe’s) brings her mixing bowl into the fray, the cops show up, Abe goes to work for the Dixons and the cook for the Boltons. Bill and Dorothy get the “reward” of being allowed to test a new low-consumption aircraft fuel (the formula for which is what all the fireworks have been about).

Dorothy Dixon and the Double Cousin

I found this title puzzling at first, since the only “double cousin” I’d ever heard of existed in genealogical research. However, it turns out to be poor syntax: Janet is Dorothy’s cousin and they look very much alike (their mothers — both dead — were twins). It’s her “Cousin Double”.

It’s Christmas vacation and Our Heroine goes to Manhattan to do some holiday shopping. Before the day is out she has met the cousin of the title and agreed to substitute for her, which will help the Secret Service find out just what Janet’s father’s shady friends are up to. She also shops so energetically that when Bill comes to pick her up for dinner she is sound asleep. Having established that this is her adventure and that she has to be back in school on January fourth (Dorothy apparently has never missed a class in her life), she’s off to the mysterious mansion in snow-covered Connecticut with her trusty new throwing knife. This gal can split a macaroon in mid-air with “Flash,” by the way, in addition to her other skills.

When the English butler steps out of the secret panel in her closet to warn her that (a) he is an undercover agent for the British Secret Service and (b) her hot lemonade is drugged, Dorothy hides the knife under her pillow and hopes the villainess won’t look there in the middle of the night when she searches the room. Since she is passing as the lady’s secretary, she gets to type up the formula for a lethal explosive gas the gang is trying to get control of, which leads you to wonder about the mental level of this gang. She also gets to go ice skating (without anyone falling through the ice), and adopt a stray pup.

It’s another charm of this series that the bad guys are often female, and in this case it means Dorothy can work on the jealousy of her “hostess” to try and split up the gang. It doesn’t seem to work, especially as the butler has somehow blown his cover and been hit over the head so he can’t rescue her after she steals the Mysterious Formula from the safe. Luckily the thieves do eventually fall out which, with a distraction provided by the puppy, give the cops — and Bill and Terry (remember Terry?) — time to arrive.

She’s back home by Christmas, and the inventor destroys his formula when he realizes what a horrendous weapon it would be. This leaves Dorothy free for another adventure, which unfortunately never materializes: Title Number Five, Dorothy Dixon and the Royal Order, is a phantom title.

© 1997 Jo Anne Fatherly

This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends