Taking inspiration from The Secret Garden and its main protagonist Mary Lennox, The Secret Detectives tells an exciting story about Mary’s, or in this case, Isobel’s journey from India to England.
Eleven-year-old orphan Isobel is a bit of misfit within society. Scruffy, ill-mannered, unloved and unappreciative, she is definitely not the kind of child that Mrs. Colonel Hartington-Davis would want to be escorting on a voyage from India to England. But this is exactly the situation that lady and child find themselves in. Being a minor, Isobel needs to be accompanied by a responsible adult on a journey to England to live with her uncle in Yorkshire.
Isobel would prefer to spend the trip alone and away from people but she is forced into a rather frosty friendship wth Letitia Hartington-Davis. And two quickly become three following a chance encounter with Sameer Khan - an eccentric young boy. When a terrible crime occurs in the middle of the night, the three children find themselves as the only witnesses and must join forces to try and bring the killer to justice before the ship docks and the killer has a chance to escape…
The Secret Detectives is an intriguing historical mystery set in the nineteenth century from a brand-new voice in children’s middle-grade fiction. This assured debut will hold much appeal to fans of the ever-expanding murder mystery genre for readers aged nine and over.
The action unfolds at a steady pace aboard the SS Marianna and largely flits between conversations under the lifeboat - the secret hideout and HQ of the Petty, Lettie and Khan Detective Agency - and meal-times in the dining room. With no-one reported missing and the captain confident that all of his passengers are accounted for the children definitely have their work cut out. As in all good mysteries, there are all manner of suspicious characters with their own secrets to hide and plenty of motives for murder. Add in twists, turns, red-herrings and the appearance of threatening hand-written notes and you’ve got all the ingredients for a murder mystery that will keep readers guessing right until the end.
In creating characters from vastly different backgrounds and with varying views of the society in which they exist, Risbridger is able to explore how background and upbringing has influenced their views on the colonial British rule of India. When the children are not conversing about the crime, they often have insightful talks as they discuss their place in wider society, the inequalities between the English and Indians and the disparity of the rich and their servants. These child views feel honest and the children do not hold back in the their opinions of society and people.
Despite their vastly different backgrounds, the children have much in common and themes of friendship, trust and teamwork are all central to the narrative. Although she would not admit it, friendship is particularly important for Isobel, who underneath her frosty exterior and unwelcoming demeanour is a child who really just wants to be accepted, appreciated and loved. There are some really heart-warming and touching moments as Isobel’s icy facade slowly begins to melt.
Really looking forward to seeing what Ella Risbridger does next, she is an exciting new voice in middle-grade fiction and definitely one to watch out for.
Recommended for 9+.
With thanks to Ella Risbridger and Nosy Crow for the advanced reader copy that was received through NetGalley.