I really enjoyed Kate Hannigan’s Cupcake Cousins, which I won after last year’s 48 Hour Book Challenge. This one is historical – more my usual style – so I was especially excited to see it coming out.
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan. Little, Brown & Company, 2015.
Cornelia Warne is 13 years old and the last of her immediate family. She’s sent from rural New York State to her last remaining aunt, who lives in Chicago. “Aunt Kitty”, or Kate, as she prefers to be called, is enjoying the freedom of widowed life (though not having been widowed in the first place) and really doesn’t want a child. Happily, she’s convinced to take Nell in (she decides right off that Cornelia is too awful a name to call even an unwanted niece), at least until she can find someplace better for her. Nell dubs her the Pickled Onion, as she is so unfriendly toward her, and sets out to make herself as useful as possible, both to Aunt Kitty and to the owner of the boarding house where they live, to keep the rent down.
It turns out that Aunt Kitty is a Pinkerton agent, who works undercover to solve various mysteries. Kate Warne, it turns out, was a real person, and the fictional Nell gets to tag along on Aunt Kitty’s cases, which get increasingly complex and important over the course of the book. This following of real cases is held together with Nell’s struggles to fit in. Nell has her own mysteries to solve, too. She is trying to learn the family secret that drove Aunt Kitty away in the first place. She is also exchanging letters with her best friend, whom we gradually learn is a freeborn African-American now moved to Canada, and who in turn is trying to find her father, an operator on the Underground Railroad. Often it seems historical novels will either be about the Underground Railroad or about the doings of white people. I really enjoyed seeing these separate threads tied together so nicely and so simply by friendship, rather than left separate or connected by chance.
I’ll say that I have loved many a dreamy historical novel – but this is decidedly not that. The Detective’s Assistant is packed full of action and suspense, with plenty of appeal for both boys and girls. Definitely for kids who are already fans of historical or mystery, but also a great one to keep in mind for the reluctant reader who’s been assigned to read a historical novel.