Jumping the shark: How Julie Campbell almost made Trixie Belden take the fatal leap

by Jenni Johns, submitted for publication in The Whispered Watchword in February 2003.

The phrase “jumping the shark” is one of the most amusing and intriguing expressions coined on the Web in recent years.  It comes from the popular Web site jumptheshark.com which refers to the Happy Days episode in which Fonzie jumps over a shark on water skis wearing his trademark leather jacket and chronicles the moments when TV series began their slides into embarrassment.  The Web site deals only with television series, however the principle can easily be applied to our favourite mystery series.  In the case of Trixie Belden, there would be few fans who would disagree that the series definitely ‘jumped the shark’ from #35 The Mystery of the Memorial Day Fire and onwards.  However, it could also be argued that Julie Campbell had Trixie Belden very close to jumping the shark in her last two books and that she bowed out just in time to stop Trixie from taking the fateful leap.

Julie Campbell Tatham published her first Trixie Belden book in 1948 and her last in 1958, but during that time she wrote at least 27 other books which were mainly mysteries.  In 1955, the last of her Cherry Ames books were published and her involvement in the Vicki Barr and Ginny Gordon series ended the following year.  Tatham only wrote two books in the next two years, the last of those being her final Trixie Belden title: #6 The Mystery in Arizona.  Her first four books of the Trixie Belden series captured the imagination of readers around the world, enthralled by her real life characters and the mysteries they were involved in.  However, her last two books were written as she was winding down her writing and although her characters are as strong as ever, the mysteries were flimsy and almost non-existent and unlike her previous books, there were no villains.

The Mystery Off Glen Road was published in 1956, two years after the previous book, The Mysterious Visitor.  When a storm damages the roof of their clubhouse, the Bobwhites are desperate to raise the money to repair it.  Brian offers the money he had saved to buy a car, but Trixie and Honey come up with a plan to get the money and keep Brian's car.  A diamond ring, a strangely dressed man, a unicycle and a dead deer become elements of a strange mystery that in the end isn't so mysterious.  The mystery occurs only because of a lack of communication between the Bob-Whites, mainly due to Trixie and Honey’s overactive imaginations.  Firstly, it seems strange that Trixie has lived in Sleepyside all her life and never met Mr Maypenny who obviously visits Mr Lytell’s store.  Secondly, if they had not kept the details of the dead deer, the unicycle tracks and the strangely dressed man a secret from the male Bob-Whites, the mystery would not have existed.  The only real mystery in this book was the mystery of Trixie’s feminine behaviour and the reader was in on this from the beginning.  Despite the lack of a mystery, most readers enjoyed the subtle hints of jealousy and confusion Jim suffers from when Trixie pretends to be in love with Honey's cousin, Ben.  However, with such a weak, almost non-existent mystery was this a hint of the series heading for the ski ramp?

It certainly appeared that way in #6 The Mystery in Arizona.  This book followed a similar pattern to its predecessor in that it had no villain and the mystery was based on misunderstanding, keeping secrets and overactive imaginations.  In this book, the Bobwhites head to Arizona to spend Christmas at Di's uncle's ranch.  However, when they arrive they find that the staff have disappeared and they have to return on the next plane.  But Trixie volunteers the Bobwhites to replace the staff and she tries to find out why the staff disappeared so suddenly and why some of the guests and the remaining staff are acting so mysteriously.  Basically, the mysteries are solved by simply asking the right questions of the right people and the story ends happily ever after and so does Tatham’s stint in writing the Trixie Belden books.

It’s possible that the weakness of the plots of Tatham’s last two Trixie Belden books is the result of her tiring from her prolific mystery writing over the previous ten years.  Between her last two Trixies, Tatham wrote To Nick from Jan.  This novel, although not a mystery, is very similar to the Trixie Belden books not just only in setting and characters, but also in that the plot revolves around the protagonist’s misinterpretation of a situation.  The similarity of this book to the Trixie Belden books that precede and follow it is perhaps further evidence that Tatham had tired of mystery writing.

So did Tatham save the series she created by bowing out after the sixth book?  The seventh book, The Mysterious Code, was certainly a return to the Trixie of old with a real, exciting mystery to enthrall its readers.  This book is a favourite of many fans of the series due to the stronger hint of romance between Trixie and Jim, but also because of the involving storyline.  By introducing Nicolette Meredith Stack to the Trixie Belden series under the pseudonym of Kathryn Kenny, Whitman were able to not only continue this popular series but recapture its original sparkle and save Trixie Belden from a horrible fate. 

It can be argued that there are other books in the Trixie Belden series that have weak mysteries or that there are other authors who threatened to or actually did force Trixie to ‘jump the shark’.  However, Trixie Belden first faced this threat early on in the life of the series and it was Tatham’s decision to bow out gracefully and allow Whitman to continue the series with ghostwriters that saved the Trixie Belden series from prematurely jumping the shark.

The End


Author’s note: Many thanks to Chad Lockwood for introducing me to the concept of ‘jumping the shark’. 

The aim of this article is not to criticize Julie Campbell Tatham, but rather to encourage you to think of what might have been if she had not stopped writing when she did