The Detective's Assistant, by Kate Hannigan (Little, Brown, April 2015, middle grade); plot,character, and writing style all pleased me very much, so yay for me! I was a tad surprised by my enjoyment, because I feel I have read an awful lot of books about plucky orphan girls in 19th century America and feel rather jaded about them (and I decided when I was quite young that I didn't find 19th century American history interesting, and haven't recovered). But The Detective's Assistant fought back against my biases beautifully.
I liked the characters:
Turns out I am not immune to the charms of a plucky, bright 19th century orphan girl! Nell was a believable character, who came with a backstory full of mysteries of her own--what happened the night her father killed her uncle? What were the circumstances of her father's own death? Who is her pen pal, Jemma? And will her aunt keep her?
More than Nell, I appreciated the character of her aunt, her uncle's widow, who works for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. It was tons of fun seeing her at work solving crimes, using her position as a woman to her advantage! And it was a treat to find out at the end that she was a real person.
I liked the framing of the story:
As well as being a story about a particular girl, it is the story of what was happening in American politics, particularly with regard to slavery, in the time just before Abraham Lincoln was elected. Jemma, Nell's friend, and her family left New York for Canada after free black families like theirs started being captured and forced into slavery, and the Abolitionist movement and the underground railway are referenced in the story, adding historical depth (even for people who feel tired of 19th century American history). And I think Hannigan did an excellent job with her historical details--I noticed nothing that grated!
Mostly, though, I liked the whole premise of the female detective and the plucky girl assistant who wants to assist more, both so her aunt will keep her and also because of the thrill of it.
Here's the Kirkus review.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.
In short, a very good book.