Historicals and mysteries are probably my two favorite genres (if I had to choose...). But together in one book! How could I resist? When I saw this cover highlighted at my library, I knew I had to read it. A feisty heroine intent on solving the mystery of her father’s death and tagging along with her real life detective aunt?
Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):
The incredible tale of America's first ever female detective and her spirited niece!
Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless.
Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.
Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this fast-paced adventure recounts feats of daring and danger...including saving the life of Abraham Lincoln!
What I loved:
1. Two great female leads with an interesting bond: The orphan who’s taken in by the less-than-enthusiastic relative has been done a million times in kidlit, but there was something unique about this pair. Their banter and camaraderie was real, heartfelt and just plain fun. The relationship had a wonderful character arc, but more than that, I liked that they were compared to sisters, a relationship I don’t see as much as I’d like in kidlit.
2. Real life historical figures: Nell Warne is the only fictional main character in this book. Her aunt, the other detectives, and of course, Abraham Lincoln, are real people. It’s great fun to see cameos like Lincoln, but even more to learn in depth about one of the first female detectives—and know that a lot of this story is based on real historical events.
3. A larger mystery to be solved along with episodic mysteries: The structure of this mystery is a bit different than most modern kids’ mysteries. Nell and Kate solve several smaller mysteries before they tackle a more dangerous one at the end. But what holds all these episodic mysteries together is Nell’s search for the truth of her father’s death. That mystery in particular kept me reading.
4. A story told in letters and narrative: The main story with Nell and Kate is told in narrative, but most of the mystery with Nell’s family is told in letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma. I thought that this was an intriguing way to introduce backstory and keep this plot going.
5. Ciphers! One great bit of fun about the letters with Jemma was that they included ciphers between the girls. These were a lot of fun to figure out (and who doesn’t read a mystery to solve puzzles?) and would greatly appeal to kids. If you have trouble with any of them, thankfully, the answers are in the back.
I could go on and on. I loved the atmospheric writing, the attention to detail, and the subtle humor. This book would appeal to kids interested in the Civil War, historicals, and mysteries. It’d be a great addition to a unit on the Civil War, especially since it gives background on the Underground Railroad, Lincoln’s inauguration, and the beginnings of the Secret Service. It would appeal to fans of The Wollenscraft Detective Agency, which I reviewed here, another great historical mystery with strong female leads.
Have you read any good historical mysteries lately?
If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.