Lynn: I, like many other mystery fans, love mysteries that are set in the past or a distant location. I’ve always admired authors who take on this extra challenge. Not only do they have to create a compelling mystery but they also have to get the historical, geographic, and cultural details right as well! We mystery fans are a picky lot and we notice when something is inaccurate or amiss so my reviewer’s hat is off to these brave authors who set their puzzles in other places or times. Young readers are just as fond of this mystery subgenre and writers like Caroline Lawrence (P. K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man, 2013) are very popular in our area.
Kate Hannigan’s new book, The Detective’s Assistant, definitely fits this category. Not only does Hannigan set her story in 1859 Chicago, she gives us a fictional story solidly based on a real and fascinating woman. Kate Warne was the first woman detective in the United States. She was hired in 1856 by the exceptionally far-sighted Allen Pinkerton and, as he wrote in 1874, “She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations.” While there is little known about Kate Warne’s early life, her cases are recorded in Pinkerton’s books. Hannigan uses these accounts wonderfully as a foundation for her story, basing the fictional stories on actual cases.
Pinkerton uses Nell in a series of Kate’s cases, firmly cementing
Nell’s ambitions to grow up to be a detective too.
Hannigan also invents a fictional niece for Kate, 11-year-old Nell Warne, who is plunked unceremoniously on Kate’s doorstep after she is orphaned. Kate wants nothing to do with Nell and the bitter memories she evokes of past events. Nell, however, will do anything to stay out of an orphanage and quickly becomes fascinated both by her prickly aunt and her aunt’s fascinating job. Pinkerton uses Nell in a series of Kate’s cases, firmly cementing Nell’s ambitions to grow up to be a detective too.
Told in first person and through letters to her best friend, Jemma, Nell relates the exciting details of the often dangerous cases she and Kate work on. Along the way, they struggle to establish a relationship, deal with a mystery in their past, and create a family. Hannigan does an outstanding job of providing historical background in the context of Nell’s accounts of her life with Kate, so the pacing of the story never falters. Nell is courageous and persistent and her appealing narrative voice keeps the pages turning. An added bit of fun are the ciphers Nell uses to convey coded information to her friend Jemma—the answers are provided in the back matter.
I loved Hannigan’s author’s note and suggested readings and am determined to track down some of Pinkerton’s books to read the actual cases. Mystery Month was over before I could post this, but please be sure to add this exceptional mystery to your to-read list!