The Mary Lou Series

The Mary Lou Series
by Edith Lavell

"Oh, that sounds exciting!" exclaimed Mary Louise.  Mr. Gay was a detective on the police force, and, knowing his daughter's keen interest in the solution of crimes, he sometimes discussed his cases with her.  Already she had shown marked ability in the same line herself by unraveling two baffling mysteries the preceding summer.

                                                                  —page 13, The Mystery of the Secret Band

The Mary Lou Series was published by A. L. Burt in 1935.  Also known as the Mary Louise Gay Series and as the Lavell Series, the books were reprinted by Saalfield.  The Saalfield reprints are much easier to find than the original A. L. Burt editions.
Titles in the Mary Louise Gay Series:

  1. The Mystery at Dark Cedars, 1935
  2. The Mystery of the Fires, 1935
  3. The Mystery of the Secret Band, 1935

The books were written by Edith Lavell, who also wrote the Linda Carlton Series and a Girl Scouts Series.  The advertisements for the Girl Scouts series state that Lavell is "an author of wide experience in Scouts' craft as Director of Girl Scouts of Philadelphia."

Mary Louise Gay is a 16 year old girl detective who could easily match wits with Nancy Drew.  In fact, the books read uncannily like the early Nancy Drew books.  I was taken aback by Mary Louise's bold behavior in several scenes, particularly one in which Mary Louise slaps the villain.  The first time I ever read the original text Nancy Drew books, I was similarly surprised by Nancy Drew's bold behavior.

The Mary Lou series has several name similarities which make the reader think of the Nancy Drew series.  Mary Louise lives in a city named Riverside, and in the first book, Mary Louise solves a mystery that involves an elderly spinster who has a maid named Hannah.  The word "keen" is used a number of times in the books.  Mary Louise's father is a police detective, and Mary Louise has the same interest in her father's cases that Nancy Drew has in Carson Drew's cases. 

Whether the name coincidences and personality similarities to Nancy Drew are simply coincidence or whether Edith Lavell had Nancy Drew in mind when she wrote this series will remain unknown.  What is certain is that this short three-volume series could easily have had the longevity of Nancy Drew if the series had been marketed better.  Sadly, the series is now long-forgotten, and few people have ever heard of it.

  #1 The Mystery at Dark Cedars                                          1935
Mary Louise Gay and her friend, Jane Patterson, befriend Elsie Grant, who is an orphan living with her aunt, Miss Mattie Grant.  Miss Grant is a miser, whose only love is her cache of money, which she keeps in her safe.  Poor Elsie has no suitable clothing and does not go to school.  When Miss Grant's money is stolen, Elsie is blamed for the theft.  Mary Louise turns detective, determined to find the real thief and exonerate Elsie.

Mary Louise's task turns out to be far from easy.  On the day the theft occurred, all of Miss Grant's relatives were present at her home and had the opportunity to steal the money.  After a clever bit of sleuthing, Mary Louise learns who stole some of the money, but Elsie is still under suspicion for the rest.  Miss Grant suddenly collapses from intense pain and must undergo an operation.  Before the surgery, Miss Grant requests that Mary Louise stay at her home and sleep in her bed.  Though puzzled, Mary Louise agrees to the request.

The Mystery at Dark Cedars
While staying in the Grant home, Mary Louise has a terrifying experience that does little to advance the solving of the mystery.  In the meantime, Elsie disappears, casting guilt upon herself.  Mary Louise remains convinced of Elsie's innocence and faces the challenge of finding the real thief.
  #2 The Mystery of the Fires                                                1935
Mary Louise, her brother and mother, and her friend, Jane Patterson, travel to Shady Nook to spend the summer in the family's cottage.  Soon after their arrival, the visitors learn that the neighboring cottage has recently burned to the ground.  The owner, Cliff Hunter, is under suspicion of starting the fire in order to collect the insurance.  The girls believe that Cliff is innocent, since he is of high character.

Mary Louise makes a list of suspects and finds that a number of people have a motive.  In the meantime, a delusional woman wanders through the woods with a pitcher in search of fires to put out—could she be the firebug?  While everyone is away on an outing, another structure burns.  Mary Louise worries that the Gay cottage may be next.  To make matters worse, a man who despises Cliff Hunter convinces the police of Cliff's guilt, based on little evidence.

The Mystery of the Fires
Mary Louise finally learns the identity of the arsonist, but at a great price.  The guilty person disposes of Mary Louise in such a way that it will be impossible for Mary Louise to regain her freedom.  Mary Louise must find a way to get word to somebody who can help her or else face living the rest of her life cut off from the outside world.
  #3 The Mystery of the Secret Band                                    1935
Mary Louise is thrilled and flattered when Mr. Gay asks her to investigate a series of hotel robberies in Philadelphia.  Mary Louise eagerly agrees to the job, even though it will mean that she will spend the Christmas holidays away from her family and friends.  Before Mary Louise leaves, her neighbors, the Detweilers, ask Mary Louise to see if she can find any trace of their granddaughter, Margaret, in Philadelphia.  Margaret was working in Philadelphia months ago and suddenly stopped writing home.

Mary Louise settles in at Stoddard House, known to the other guests as a relative of the manager, Mrs. Hilliard.  Mrs. Hilliard is certain of the honesty of her help, so either long-term guests or transient guests are likely responsible for the robberies.  During Mary Louise's first night in the hotel, a burglar enters Mary Louise's room and steals her watch!  Matters have become more confusing because the burglar was clearly a man—and all of the hotel's guests are women!

The Mystery of the Secret Band
Mary Louise spends a little time on her other case, that of missing Margaret Detweiler.  Mary Louise learns that Margaret lost her job under suspicion of theft and went away with a wealthy older woman.  Mary Louise tracks Margaret to the town of Center Square but the trail stops there.  Undaunted, Mary Louise continues working on both cases, and after further developments, is amazed to find that two seemingly unrelated cases are deeply intertwined.
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