A marvellous Middle Grade murder-mystery aboard a mail ship makes for a thrilling Victorian voyage.
The body seemed to fall for a long time. There was no splash, or if there was it was lost in the waves. Isobel was frozen to the spot for a moment – then her common sense caught up with her and she stepped quickly back into the shadows.
Newly orphaned 11 year old Isobel Petty is forced to leave her home in India to live with a distant Uncle, in England. She must make the three week voyage aboard the S.S.Mariana under the care of prim and proper Mrs Colonel Hargington-Davis and her two children – sickly-sweet, butter-wouldn’t-melt Letitcia and sticky-fingered 6 year old Horace.
Eight nights into the voyage on moonlit decks, Isobel witnesses a shocking act – somebody being thrown overboard – and she’s not the only one…Sameer Khan, the son of the distinguished Dr Khan sees it too. Curiously though, nobody raises the alarm the next morning and with all the passengers accounted for, how is it possible that the incident happened in the first place?
The children make a pact to solve the crime and as the ship charts it’s course from Calcutta, through the Suez Canal to the Mediteranean, Isobel and her new friends must solve two mysteries – the identities of both the murderer and the victim. Can they crack the case before they reach England and the culprit has the chance to jump ship?
There’s something so appealing about a murder mystery at sea and especially one set in the Victorian era – I would love to be left to my own devices all day long exploring the decks and belly of the ship with only the dinner bell to structure my day. The attention to detail in the story is a triumph! Petticoats, pinafores, crisp white tablecloths, kedgeree, boot polish and buffed silverware make for an immersive historical read.
The Secret Detective has all the feels of Death on the Nile. A cast of Cluedo-like characters really bring this story to life – there’s American millionaire and socialite widow ‘Diamonds’ Mrs Drake, Lord Trimlingham and Major Bourne, the Russian Karamazova sisters and German Doctor, Doktor Weiss to name a few and of course their maids, valets and other associated servants. But who has the motive for murder? There’s many a twist and turn as the children collect their clues and the odd red herring thrown in for good measure too! It’s extremely cleverly done and even the most seasoned sleuths will be scratching their heads, struggling to solve the crime.
The story also explores the issues of race and class and carefully threaded-in throughout the plot are opportunities for children to discuss the prejudiced opinions Lettie harbours towards Indians and people that she sees as of lower social classes. Sameer is such an eloquent, well spoken character and the way he challenges and rebuffs her comments with such measured confidence had me almost cheering in places. The book affords us the opportunity to teach children about colonial Britain and think about how we must continue to strive for a fairer world.
The Secret Detectives is a beautifully written, assured debut and Ella Risbridger is most definitely an extraordinary new voice in children’s fiction.
The Secret Detectives is published by Nosy Crow and is released on 3rd June 2021.
To read or listen to the first chapter, visit the Nosy Crow website here