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Literature / Sammy Keyes

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We live in Santa Martina, remember? This town is full of wackos.
Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen

Sammy Keyes is a series of mystery novels aimed at children and teenagers that, of course, follows the adventures of the titular protagonist. In most of the books, she deals with everyday junior high school life, solves mysteries, and contends with her arch-nemesis Heather Acosta, though there have been a couple of exceptions to the formula.


These works contain examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear:
    • One story (Search for Snake Eyes) centers around Sammy running into a scared, desperate girl, who forces Sammy to take a bag. When the girl is forced to leave, it turns out that there's a baby inside. It's later revealed that the baby was the girl's son and that she was forced to give him to a complete stranger to protect him from her abusive ex-boyfriend, who was hunting her down. The climax of the novel reveals that the ex did catch her, and left her in his basement, tied up and starving. After she's rescued, she wants to see her baby before getting medical treatment.
    • The one time Officer Borsch shows concern for Sammy's safety is when she and her friends manage to temporarily imprison a drug dealer who was making meth in an underground lab. Once she reveals the evidence to him, shortly after said dealer destroyed the bike she borrowed from Hudson and nearly killed her Borsch shouts at her that what she did was extremely dangerous and that you don't confront meth dealers head-on.
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    • Considering some of the dangerous situations Sammy gets into and somehow manages to get out of, mostly all of her books contain at least one example of Adult Fear, which can either make the danger more realistic or make her getting out of it more improbable. Grams after The Search for Snake Eyes makes a deal with Sammy that they will have no more secrets between them because Sammy keeps getting into dangerous situations. Sammy still keeps some things quiet, however, like busting a gambling ring late at night with cat-killers.
    • The scene where Dorito accidentally escapes the apartment because Lady Lana startled him by screaming on seeing he had caught a mouse. Sammy's heart stops when he's nearly hit by a few trucks. She and Gran spend a few hours searching for him, with them worried he was caught and killed by the same person putting dead cats in dumpsters. It's quite a relief when a janitor named Tony finds Dorito and returns him to Sammy and Grams, unharmed but covered in fleas. Later, however, Sammy has an Ascended Fridge Horror moment when figuring out that Tony is running an underground gambling ring that pits cats against dogs, and that Dorito nearly got killed.
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    • The entirety of Kiss Goodbye, full stop.
  • An Aesop: Most of the books have at least one. Despite being Anvilicious at points, they're handled well.
  • Alliterative Name: Tenille Toolee, the Dragon to Heather's Big Bad.
  • Alpha Bitch: Heather, complete with a one-dimensional, dimwitted Girl Posse.
  • Arch-Enemy: Heather Acosta, to Sammy.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Sammy asks about her father, Lady Lana clams up and Grams says it's not her place. Sammy then asks what she's supposed to think if neither of them will tell her. Lady Lana has no response.
  • Ascended Fridge Horror: Sammy and Grams have this reaction at different points in The Psycho Kitty Queen when they find out Tony, the janitor who rescued their cat was running an underground ring of cats fighting dogs. When Sammy and Holly see the ring in action, Sammy realizes that would have happened to Dorito if she and Grams hadn't put up Lost and Found posters. Grams even tells Sammy she was horrified on realizing their cat was nearly killed.
  • Author Appeal: Van Draanen's parents are Dutch immigrants, and so are Dot's. Her husband's great-grandfather crossed the plains in 1850. In Moustache Mary, the eponymous pioneer was part of a group of travelers doing the same thing, and Sammy spends New Years' with Dot's family. It's one of the few cases where the author appeal is educational-as well as delicious.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: Sammy lampshades in The Psycho Kitty Queen that during the weekend of her birthday she found dead cats in Dumpsters, found how her mother lied about her birthday, then learned she and Heather had the same birthday, lost her cat for a couple of hours, and put up Lost/Found signs in the dangerous part of town. The only good thing was she won money for taking a back bump, which she uses to buy a secondhand CD player. Ironically, she then starts to have the best week of her life, subverting the trope.
  • Birthday Hater: In The Psycho Kitty Queen Sammy explains to Hudson that she hates her birthday and didn't mention it was the next day because on her twelfth birthday, her mother sat her down and announced that she was going to Hollywood, and then forgot Sammy's thirteenth and called several days later apologizing. Lady Lana also messes up Sammy's fourteenth birthday by revealing that Sammy is actually thirteen, and then accidentally letting Dorito loose because he had caught a mouse.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Sisters of Mercy, big time!
  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: In Sisters of Mercy, Sammy and Marissa do this to Monet when they start deliberately going over the wrong softball signals.
  • Bookends: Hotel Thief starts and Kiss Goodbye ends with Sammy waving to someone through a window. And both books have the same culprit.
  • Buried Alive: Happens to Dusty Mike the cemetery caretaker in one book, although he gets rescued.
  • Camp Gay: Art gallery owner—and Ren Faire booth-runner—Jojo in Art of Deception.
  • Chekhov's Gun: As is natural for almost any detective story.
    • Sammy's catcher's mitt, a Tragic Keepsake from his Disappeared Dad. In The Search for Snake Eyes she uses it to hold a hose that spews hot water, to incapacitate the titular character.
    • Miss Kuzkowski's painting habits before and during class. Sammy mentions that her teacher is a big of The Pig-Pen, that she gets paint everywhere, including in her hair. As a result, the class smells strongly of turpentine, linseed oil, and other painting chemicals. Sammy is quite embarrassed for her, especially when she gets more paint-splattered during the March winds. She later figures out that Diane is a fraud because she is always so perfectly clean and manicured, and her house didn't smell like turpentine, acrylic, or oils. A real artist would at least have some paint on her clothes or body, as would her studio.
    • Her homeroom teacher's magnifying glass in The Art of Deception. Sammy uses it to identify a signature on a painting as a forgery.
    • Sammy's jamming the fire escape door latch to get into the Highrise undetected comes back to bite her in Kiss Goodbye. Her attempted killer jams two doors in the hospital stairwell the same way in order to access the room containing an unconscious Sammy.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Darren Cole, a rock musician first mentioned in Psycho Kitty Queen whose fandom includes Sammy, Casey, and Marissa's family. In Showdown in Sin City, it's revealed that he's Sammy's father.
    • Throughout Kiss Goodbye, it's suggested the man who pushed Sammy off the fire escape is a villain from the earlier book. It's the culprit from Hotel Thief, Larry Daniels aka "Oscar the ice cream man."
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • Hudson in The Sisters of Mercy teaches Sammy how to crack safe codes. This comes in handy when she has to find proof that the titular characters are the thieves that have robbed a church.
    • Sammy getting unofficial wrestling lessons from Slammin' Dave helps her out when Heather and her posse try to mug her for a horseshoe.
  • City of Adventure: Santa Martina.
  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase: The format all the titles follow.
  • Comic-Book Time: The first installments were published, and presumably set, around 1990ish. About a year and a half has passed in Sammy's world, but the setting has kept pace with the twenty-some years passing on the outside: in recent books, most middle-school kids have their own cell phones.
  • Cool Old Guy: Hudson. He made his own lizard-skin boots, fixes up old vehicles for fun, and always has pastries ready when Sammy comes knocking.
  • Cool Old Lady: Grams has her moments. Notably when she pins Diane Reijden down long enough for Sammy to rescue half a burned painting from a pyre and expose Diane as a fraud.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: In Psycho Kitty Queen, obviously. A local former pageant queen named Katherine insistently goes by Kitty, keeps many cats, and harbors a vicious dislike of dogs. She claims to be able to identify a scrap of furry skin as a piece of dog licking it.
  • Cute Bruiser: And again, Sammy.
    • Holly Janquell, her baseball bat, and her troubled past would like to weigh in, too.
  • Darker and Edgier: How many kid detective series involve arson, murder, drugs, and sex, without any loss in quality?
    • As well as having thirteen and fourteen year olds drinking and smoking. While underage drinking and such are handled in other, grittier stories, few of them are aimed at younger children.
    • In the final book Sammy gets pushed off the fire escape and ends up in the hospital, and the one who pushed her keeps coming back to finish the job.
  • Deadpan Snarker: A lot of characters in the series have shades of this, but it's most apparent in Sammy's narration.
  • Debate and Switch: In The Art of Deception Hudson while in a relationship with "Grams" finds himself attracted to Diane Reijden, an artist who does poignant oils of various subjects. Hudson claims that falling in love with Diane is a matter of falling in love with the art, while Grams in Green-Eyed Monster mode claims that the art is shallow and tacky, manipulating emotions. Sammy, caught in the middle, doesn't know what to think since she likes the paintings but she doesn't like seeing Grams hurt. Then she realizes that Diane, aka "Elizabeth," didn't do the paintings but took credit for them after her father left them to her, and Diane was willing to destroy them once lithographs were taken. Hudson has to admit that he fell for Diane's looks since "an old dead guy" actually did the paintings, and Grams acquiesces and says they were lovely paintings, after they've been destroyed.
  • Destroy the Evidence:
    • Sammy does this with the "Crocodile"'s Black Mail book after she succeeds in stealing it, leaving the latter with no hold on her or anyone else because she realizes that so much knowledge about others' personal lives are too dangerous and nasty to hold.
    • Diane burns her father's paintings when they no longer serve any monetary purpose. Sammy barely manages to save enough of Whispers, her favorite portrait, to prove Diane's a fraud and she's heartbroken about what she didn't save.
  • Driving Question: Arguably - Sammy wants to know who her father is, and Van Draanen has stated that the series will end when she finds out.
    • More recently, Van Draanen said on her blog that Sammy will find out who he is with in the next few books, and the series will continue for several books after that. At the time of this edit, that book and a second came out; only one more is planned.
    • Sammy finds out in the sixteenth book, Showdown in Sin City, two before the end of the series.
  • Due to the Dead: Despite the fact that he tried to kill her and ended up killing her fiancee instead— his own brother— Lucinda goes to the man's funeral and talks to his body in the coffin. Sammy doesn't know what she said, and would rather leave it at that.
  • Enemy Mine: Sammy and Officer Borsch help each other out occasionally. They eventually become Friendly Enemies, and then outright friends.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Again, as usual for the genre.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    •  Officer Borsch doesn't necessarily like Sammy but has come to respect her after she delivered evidence that one of his bullying coworkers is corrupt. There's one moment where he is legitimately concerned for her safety: when she barely escapes with her life from a methaphetamine dealer while trying to keep him locked in his den long enough for the cops to come. He's shaking her in Anger Born of Worry that she could have been killed. Sammy is shocked that he cares that much.
    • Diane Reijden's brother Lance, who is a Black Sheep and a "deadbeat" is outright horrified that Diane not only took credit for her father's paintings, but destroyed them via a house fire. In fact, Diane doing such a thing motivates him to clean up his life and stop "running away".
  • Evil Redhead: Heather, as well as her mother, though it's been suggested that they're dyeing it.
  • Fair Play Whodunit
  • Feuding Families: The Huntley and Murdock families have been feuding ever since Mary Huntley shot a Murdock she caught robbing her while they were part of a wagon train. Three generations later, Lucinda Huntley and Manny Murdock get engaged. It's unclear whether there'd been any violence in the years before that, but the engagement causes Manny's brother to make an attempt on Lucinda's life that accidentally kills Manny instead. Several decades later, the remaining Murdock's and Lucinda still hate each other, but there isn't any more violence, and Lucinda's nephew and the Murdocks do business together (albeit in secret). The Murdock's are suspected of setting a fire on Lucinda's land but are innocent.
  • Friend or Idol Decision: After Casey reveals that Sammy and Marissa were framed for vandalism, and that his sister Heather was responsible, Sammy is eligible to play in the softball playoffs. She realizes, however that "Snake Eyes" has kidnapped the Teen Mother Lena that gave her baby to Sammy, and gives up paying and gives up the game without hesitation. Vice Principal Caan ends up forfeiting the big game because he doesn't trust Sammy's replacement Babs since she's associated with Heather, and puts Heather on probation.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Sammy (choleric), Marissa (phlegmatic), Holly (melancholic), Dot (sanguine).
  • Gratuitous German: Gisa, a German exchange student on Heather's baseball team, tends to yell out Ja (German for yes) a lot when she's excited.
  • He Is Not My Boyfriend: Sammy and Casey. No one believes her. Eventually ends with a Relationship Upgrade when he learns that she lives with her grandmother.
  • Hidden Depths: Many, many characters.
  • I Know You Know I Know: In the resolution of Psycho Kitty Queen, Officer Borsch visits Sammy in her grandmother's apartment and he thanks her for saving his life. This makes her realize that he knows about her living situation but won't rat about it, and she's okay with it given no one knows two thirteen-year olds saved him from vicious gamblers.
  • Inspector Javert: Officer Borsch, initially.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Sammy and Hudson.
    • Sammy and Officer Borsch, eventually.
  • It's the Principle of the Thing: Sammy doesn't know why Heather is obsessed with the horseshoe that Casey gave her. As Sammy puts it, it's just a bent piece of metal that doesn't mean anything and is probably not lucky. But when Heather tries to steal it, Sammy is offended because Heather wanting to get something that's hers.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Sammy finds an old picture of her neighbor, Mrs. Graybill.
  • Jerkass: Heather, all the way. Until her Heel–Face Turn at the end of Showdown in Sin City.
    • Danny Urbanski, as well.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Amazingly, Officer Borsch.
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes: Father Mayhew is mentioned to have them.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: A variant; Heather gets away with a lot of her nonsense in the early books in a legal sense, only being chided by the vice-principal for lying about her broken nose; it doesn't help that Sammy retaliates to ensure Heather faces karma which gets her in trouble as well. Then Heather goes too far by framing Sammy and Marissa for doing graffiti in "The Search for Snake Eyes" and Casey delivers the evidence to Vice-Principal Caan. Caan's forced to forfeit the upcoming softball game because Sammy ditches it to save Lena from Snake Eyes, and Caan doesn't trust Heather or her players because Marissa goes to help Sammy. Heather is forced to attend counseling, is put on probation, and given a school-mandated restraining order regarding Sammy. As an added bonus, when Caan finds out that Sammy beat up Heather when the latter attempted to mug her, he's actually impressed and laughing about it.
  • Kick the Dog: Heather's character is practically built upon petty maliciousness. Special mention goes to her taunting Sammy about losing her father's softball mitt in Sisters of Mercy.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Casey sees Heather and her posse attempting to steal the horseshoe he gave to Sammy while trapped on the school bus. He gets off at the next stop and goes to help, only to find that Sammy has rescued herself and the horseshoe. Heather attempts to call him for help, saying Sammy broke her arm. He retorts that she's an embarrassment and goes to make sure Sammy is okay.  
  • Kid Detective: Sammy herself, sometimes with help from her friends. She calls it "snooping".
  • Masked Luchador: El Gato in Psycho Kitty Queen. He's actually Borsch, undercover on his own time to infiltrate a catfighting ring.
  • Mugging the Monster: Heather and her Girl Posse attempt to steal a horseshoe from Sammy, taking her by surprise. Unfortunately for them, Sammy's been practicing wrestling moves . . .
  • Mystery Magnet: A stranger example than others, as each mystery usually takes place within a month. Other Mystery Magnet stories aren't as regulated.
  • The Nicknamer: Sammy, in regards to practically everything. She has a tendency to give people she encounters (often unflattering) nicknames before she knows their real names. If she likes you, she'll start calling you by your real name once she knows it, but if not, the nickname sticks.
  • No Sympathy: Several villains and suspects are flawed in this way. A notable one is the blackmailer/Knowledge Broker Lilia Landvgot from The Runaway Elf. At one point while going over the information she has on various people she mentions that one, who incidentally sees the two of them as friends had three miscarriages and sneers that she should have married an obstetrician instead of a psychologist. Sammy later mentions this to said woman, who does not take it well and vows to blacklist Lilia from local society.
  • Not Allowed to Grow Up: Averted. Sammy's age progresses as the series goes on. At least, until Psycho Kitty Queen, when Lana reveals she lied about Sammy's age to get her into Kindergarten early. And she tells her this days before her 14th birthday, which is actually her 13th.
  • One Steve Limit: Cassie Kuo, a minor character from Sisters of Mercy, is given the nickname "Cricket" in Wild Things, apparently so as not to confuse her with Casey Acosta.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Meta example. The eighteenth and final book, Kiss Goodbye, is the only book not to be narrated by Sammy, it's the only one with chapter titles, and it has the highest stakes, with Sammy comatose after being pushed off the fire escape and the man responsible trying to finish the job.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: Happens in Dead Giveaway. Luckily, it ends better than a lot of examples.
  • Parental Abandonment: Sammy's dad has vanished, and her mother has run off to Hollywood to be an actress. Once her dad learns he has a daughter, he makes an effort to get back into Sammy's life, and is a major character in Killer Cruise.
    • Casey certainly believes this is the case in Wedding Crasher when his dad Warren gets a part in the same soap opera as Sammy's mom, thus forcing him to move in with his mother and sister, both of whom he hates. This causes some angst in his relationship with Sammy. It's also on the Squick side of things for the both of them when they find out that Warren and Lana are moving in together after having dated for a while. However, Warren and Lana's relationship doesn't last through Showdown in Sin City.
  • Parents as People: Lady Lana is not the best parent, to put it mildly. She abandons Sammy on the latter's twelfth birthday to become an actress in Hollywood and forgets her thirteenth. Then on Sammy's fourteenth birthday she reveals that she lied about Sammy's age to get her into kindergarten early, which infuriates Sammy that she has to be thirteen all over again. It is obvious that she cares for her daughter, and Sammy loves her, but they never really repair their relationship. While she does offer to come home after Sammy saves her life, Sammy refuses because she knows her mother would be miserable waiting tables and their relationship would get worse.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: In The Psycho Kitty Queen after seeing the efforts Sammy is taking to try and find her lost cat the bad guys simply pretend that he got lost and return him to try and keep her from stumbling across their animal fighting operation.
  • Retired Badass: One possible interpretation of Hudson.
  • Relative Error: A variant; Casey gets briefly worried in The Psycho Kitty Queen when Sammy says they can go to Hudson's house to cool down after Heather, Tenille, and Monet attacked her. He asks if Hudson would mind since he's a guy, getting a little Green-Eyed Monster. Sammy tells him, missing the point, that Hudson would probably give Casey a ride home. Casey realizes that since Hudson is in his seventies and shaking his hand that he's more of a grandfather substitute to Sammy. 
  • Serious Business: Santa Martina takes softball very seriously, so much so that there's a softball statue in City Hall. It's rumored that the mayor bows to it every day. This is why Heather gets in a lot of trouble and becomes anathema to the teachers when Casey delivers proof that she framed Sammy and Marissa to take their place in a softball tournament.
  • Shadow Archetype: Explicitly spelled out as Heather's relationship to Sammy, up to having the same birthday.
  • Shaking the Rump: Minor baseball player Julie Jaffee. To quote Sammy in the third book:
    ''she measures up like she always does, sticks her fanny out, like she always does, and half the boys in school whistle, like they always do.
  • Sickbed Slaying / Vorpal Pillow: Averted and subverted in Kiss Goodbye. The villain plans to murder an unconscious Sammy by smothering her with the pillow from her hospital bed, and plans on it taking three minutes (he got a time of six minutes from the web, then halved it due to Sammy being unconscious). However, he never gets those three minutes, as Sammy's friends and family are always by her side.
  • Sore Loser: After Sammy's baseball team beats Heather's for the first time, Heather and her teammates, except for Emiko Lee the pitcher, all ignore or glare at Sammy and her friends. Most of them get better after the next game though.
  • Street Urchin: Holly, initially. Sammy asks for some friends who run a pet grooming salon to take her in, and they become her official guardians.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • The way Lucinda talks, the Murdocks and Huntleys have been murderous for hundreds of years. When Sammy investigates, however, she finds out that Manny Murdock was the most recent casualty— because he was protecting Lucinda from his brother's gun. It turns out while the Murdocks still hate Lucinda, losing Manny broke them, especially his killer, and he wasn't the same.
    • The whole subplot of Heather framing Sammy and Marissa for graffiti reeks of this. Even though their coach Ms. Rothammer swears that the girls are innocent and threatens to resign in protest, they still get kicked off the team so that Sammy's substitute and one of Heather's flunkies Babs can be the catcher. Casey, however, delivers the proof — a wig and a pair of high tops — to Vice-Principal Caan on the day of a big softball tournament. It clears their names and makes them eligible to play. The thing is that Sammy has to go rescue Lena from her ex, and says she's fine with letting Babs play because Lena's life is in danger; it turns out Marissa and Ms. Rothammer were not cool with this and refused to play, so Caan was forced to forfeit due to realizing their replacements were delinquents and liars. This makes everyone in the school mad at Heather for her deceit because softball is Serious Business and she sabotaged her own teammates just to put in her own stooges. It's only because her mother spoils her rotten and covers for her that the school decides the punishment will be counseling, probation, and a school-issued restraining order; she can't get within twenty-five feet of Sammy. Since softball season is now over, there's no reason to kick her off the team though it's implied. What's more, all the teachers start treating Heather like a delinquent (as they should) whenever she starts trying to get a rise out of Sammy in class.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": When Sammy wants to figure out how to crack a safe in Sisters of Mercy, the advice Hudson gives her is essentially this trope, but paraphrased. Winds up a Chekhov's Skill in the same book when she has to open a safe at the church.
  • Together in Death: Really, really creepy variation in Hollywood Mummy. Sammy's mother Lana, an actress, fakes an ID so she can claim to be 25. Unfortunately, her new birthdate is the day her boss's wife died. He thinks Lana is the reincarnation of his wife, and he tries to kill both of them so they can be reincarnated together.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Officer Borsch, in two separate books. Sammy as a Christmas present provides proof that one cop heckling him is a Dirty Cop and saves his life in The Psycho Kitty Queen.
  • Villainous Breakdown: In the later books, this happens to Heather. She still hasn't really recovered from it. It doesn't help that Sammy saved her from drowning, either.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Heather Acosta - when Sammy realizes this, it forces her to admit that they're Not So Different.
  • Wham Episode: Showdown in Sin City. Grams and Hudson get married, Marissa's family falls apart and decides to move away from Santa Martina, Sammy and Heather team up and overcome their mutual hatred, and Sammy's father's identity is revealed.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Grams and Hudson danced around this for most of the series. Eventually, they did.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Heather tries to pull this in book one when Sammy punches her in the nose, claiming that Sammy broke it. Her friend Tenille collects money to pay for the supposed medical expenses. Sammy busts her by calling Heather's doctor, posing as her and lying that Vice-Principal Caan is making her wear the bandage. Vice-Principal Caan is so mad about being accused that he makes Heather prove her nose isn't broken, and everyone goes to Tenille asking for their money back. It doesn't work in Psycho Kitty Queen where Heather claims that Sammy broke her arm. Everyone on the buses witnessed Heather and her Girl Posse assaulting Sammy and are impressed that Sammy curbstomped them.


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