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Growing Bookworms Newsletter: April 22

The Detective's Assistant: Kate Hannigan

Book: The Detective's Assistant
Author: Kate Hannigan
Pages: 368
Age Range: 8-12

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan is historical fiction speculating on the existence of the niece of an actual historical figure, Kate Warne, the first female detective to work for Pinkerton's Agency. 11-year-old Nell Warne is dumped on the doorstep of her extremely reluctant aunt by marriage, after the deaths of Nell's family members from various causes.

Aunt Kitty lives in a Chicago boarding house in a time immediately prior to Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Aunt Kitty blames Nell's father for the death of her husband, and this keeps a rift between woman and girl. But slowly, Kitty starts to allow Nell to help her in her work, to become an informal detective's assistant. The two are involved in solving various cases, including one with great historical significance and one that strikes much closer to home.

Truth be told, it's Aunt Kitty who is the stronger character here, despite Nell's first-person viewpoint. Though rather disagreeable (Nell refers to her in letters as "Pickled Onion"), Kitty shows herself to be an early feminist, a woman who believes that girls can do anything. She is a stickler for vocabulary and self-improvement, and she frequently surprises Nell with her expressed beliefs (e.g., paraphrasing: 'You want to be a nurse? Why not become a doctor?').

On of my favorite scenes in one in which Nell and Kitty are following a suspected murderer at night, in a creepy setting. Nell worries that they'll be caught, and Kitty, after the briefest of reassurances, adds: "And the proper word is isn't, not ain't. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress."

Yes, Kitty/Kate is a strong character. But Nell is fun, too. She has a melodramatic voice that lends an over-the-top, not quite realistic tone to her experiences. This is a good thing, because otherwise reading about an unwanted girl whose entire family has died might be depressing. And The Detective's Assistant is NOT depressing. It's entertaining and educational and occasionally suspenseful, but not depressing. For example, here's Nell, undercover with some secessionists:

"I'd read enough newspapers by now to know about abolitionists, and I did not think the term deserved to go hand in hand with the word traitor. I fanned my face a little faster and resisted the urge to smack these blithering cretins roundly on their hot heads." (Page 274) 

All in all, Nell is a pretty good foil for Kitty. Hannigan weaves in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of mid-nineteenth century America almost seamlessly. Nell is excited to try the exciting new food, "iced cream". And she is especially pleased with the new dish "Macaroni a l'Italienne with Fromage" (aka macaroni and cheese). She has to be careful not to drag her skirts through horse dropping along the street, and she aspires to the widest, most petticoat-filled skirts she can get.

Nell is an avid newspaper reader, and it is through her curiosity about the world that young readers will pick up background about Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Underground Railroad. Letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma play a key role, too, conveying both major information and tidbits like the existence of "the glorious thirty-three states in the Union."

These letters (displayed using a font that looks like rounded handwriting) also help to show Nell's educational progress throughout the book, as her vocabulary and grammar improve. It's only in an afterword that the author reveals that Kate Warne and her Pinkerton's colleagues were real people. And finally, the letters include various codes that the two girls use for passing information back and forth. A key to the puzzles' solutions is included at the end of the book, though I doubt many readers will need it. 

The Detective's Assistant is an entertaining, multi-layered blend of historical fiction and mystery, perfect for middle grade readers. Highly recommended.  

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).