First reviewed on 4/1/09, Nancy Springer's six books about Sherlock and Mycroft's MUCH younger sister are stellar on so many levels. From the Victorian underworld of London that Enola is thrust into to the mysteries she tries to solve to the character of Enola herself, a strong, brave, smart heroine if there ever was one. Each book in this series is a masterpiece. I hope that, in the wake of the popularity of the newest BBC iteration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective, Springer's books get (more) of the attention they so richly deserve! And, the audios narrated by the spectacular Katherine Kellgren are fantastic.
With the creation of Enola Holmes, Nancy Springer has introduced a character who is perhaps the most compelling, intelligent, human, daring girl to be found in the pages of children's literature. This may sound like hyperbole, but I cannot tell you how much I love these books and especially their narrator who is the fourteen year old, significantly younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes.
While I have never been a fan of mysteries and nor have I ever read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books, I am fascinated by Victorian England and was drawn to this series because of the time period and, the intriguing cover art (which I know hides a clue I have yet to decipher) by Peter Ferguson, the genius who also brings visual life to Daphne, Sabrina and the rest of the engaging characters who populate Michael Buckley's brilliant series of fairy-tale mysteries, Sisters Grimm. Also, as children's bookseller I am frequently asked to suggest a good mystery, whether it is for a book report or a reader who has exhausted (or been exhausted by) Nancy Drew. I'll be honest. I detest Nancy Drew. I read her as a kid, which was a time when the number of children's books in publication took up a few bookshelves rather than one third of the store like now. I read Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak as well as re-reading an old Nancy Drew to refresh my memory. The biography was actually very interesting. Nancy Drew was still boring as dust. The Nancy Drew books are lackluster, dry a a bone mysteries that are completely lacking in imagination and totally unsolvable before reaching the ending. On top of that, Nancy is practically an adult with the freedoms of one. I have no idea why young girls are interested in her aside from misguided nostalgia on the part of parents and the fact that most kids love any book that is a series these days. Like Nancy, by the end of the first book in the series, Enola, with copious financial aid from her AWOL mother, finds herself a domicile and sets herself up as a Scientific Perditorian and thus is a fourteen year old child living as an adult with adult freedoms. However, Enola has the emotional depth that Nancy Drew lacks. She misses her mother, yearns for her love and, although she knows why her mother left, often wonders how she could have left HER. She also yearns for connection with her brother Sherlock, whom she recognizes to be a melancholy, singular figure. Enola and her remarkable sleuthing abilities, as well as the interesting scrapes she gets herself into are a great welcome addition to the shelves, mystery section or otherwise. Now, if I could just get kids to want to read these! In my book selling experience, the best way to entice a child to read a book is to speak enthusiastically about it because you have read it and loved it yourself. Perhaps, readers, you will find my review so enthralling that you will read one of these books on your own and be able to pass your appreciation and love of it on to a young reader (most likely a girl...)
The first and last chapter of each Enola Holmes Mystery treats the reader to an omniscient narrator's view of Enola and/or other characters from the story. Everything in between is narrated by the observant, determined and perceptive Enola. When we first meet her she is pondering the name her mother, who gave birth to her at the embarrassing (for the time) age of fifty, christened her with. Enola, spelled backwards is ALONE. Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes must have had something in mind when she chose this name. She was fond of ciphers and, nearly every day she was heard to say, "You will do very well on your own, Enola." And, by the end of the book the reader does know what she had in mind. Within the first few lines of "Chapter the First," Springer encompasses everything that is remarkable and unique about these books. Through the largely absentee character of Lady Holmes we come to know all the prejudice and oppression of women in Victorian society. With Enola, we see how the freedoms and rights that Lady Holmes lived for and instilled in her daughter are put to use. For, on the day of Enola's fourteenth birthday, Lady Holmes disappears, leaving Enola in the care of her London dwelling brothers, more than twenty years her senior.
What at first seems to be an accident or possibly foul play is slowly revealed to be an intentional disappearance as both Enola and her brother Sherlock investigate Ferndell Hall, familial estate of the Holmes'. As Enola searches her mother's rooms for clues she is mystified by the items that have been left at home, if indeed her mother intentionally left home. She is especially perplexed by a "peculiar object like a cushion, but all of a pouf, made of coils and clouds of white horsehair." What follows is an hilarious scene when Enola carries this "pouf" downstairs with her and asks longtime butler, Lane, if he has any idea what it is. Lane stammeringly tells Miss Holmes that it is a "dress improver," which causes Enola to wonder if it is to improve the front or the back of the dress... When she realized what is in her hands, she is horrified to be holding "in a public room of the hall, in the presence of a male, the unwhisperable that hid inside a gentlewoman's bustle, supporting its folds and draperies." Further education on the clothes and underclothes worn by proper women of the time, as well as their sometimes fatal effects, ensues as Enola continues her search and is prepared to be sent to boarding school. Some horrific and fascinating, although not graphic, facts about corsets and stays and their cruel usage follows.
Although Lady Holme's abandonment of her daughter seems cruel, we learn that she has been preparing Enola for this day her whole life. Lady Holmes is a suffragist who subscribes to "Rational Dress Journals" that suggest reasonable clothing for women and are filled with warnings about the cultivation of an hourglass figure through the use of corsets cinched to deathly tightness. Because of this, she allows Enola to go about in her brothers' old knickerbockers and teaches her to ride a bicycle, which is made easier by the boy's clothing. She also encourages Enola's limited artistic abilities and a love of ciphers and puzzles. With these gifts and the actual gifts that she leaves for Enola to open at tea time on her birthday, a drawing kit, a book entitled The Meanings of Flowers Including Also Notes Upon the Messages Conveyed by Fans, Handkerchiefs, Sealing-Wax and Postage Stamps, and a much smaller, book of ciphers that she has hand crafted, Lady Holmes prepares her to do very well on her own, and, with a few stumbles and near fatal run-ins with villains, she does.
The first half of the book is taken up with the disappearance of Enola's mother and the bewliderment and grief that she experiences. As Enola gradually comes to realize that, while her mother did not leave her a note of explanation, she did leave her a sizable amount of money hidden throughout her room so that Enola can truly do well on her own, she knows that, in her own way, her mother loves her very much. The whereabouts of Lady Holmes and Enola's longing to see her again is a thread that will run through all of the books in this series, but it is not the mystery of this story. The missing marquess of the title provides the mystery, vanishing halfway through the book. This happens just as Enola has begun to carry out her escape to London, thwarting Mycroft and his plan for corsets, dresses and boarding school. The the importance of disguising herself for her getaway is not lost on Enola, who eschews the obvious guise of a boy, assuming that is how Sherlock would expect her to dress. Instead, she takes her cues from her mother and utilizes the absurd styles of the times as hiding places for her funds and necessities. The absence of a dress improver in a bustle dress can make for a useful storage space, a fact that is not lost on Enola. Pleased that she has been able to riddle out most of the clues that her mother left her and, perhaps because it is in her blood, Enola can't resist visiting the home of the missing boy. Upon reaching the gates of the Basilwether Hall, she slips and gives her real name rather than the pseudonym she had prepared for herself. However, indicating that she is the sister of Sherlock Holmes also buys her the credit she needs to enter the estate. Once there, she encounters a distraught mother and her domineering, statuesque spiritualist, Madame Laelia Sibyl de Papaver, Astral Perditorian. A brief conversation with Lady Tewksbury leads Enola to all the clues she needs to solve the mystery.
But, the story doesn't end there. Enola heads on to London, her plans slightly altered. Through her youth and inexperience finds herself in serious trouble almost immediately. While disbelief must willingly be suspended at times, Springer does such a thorough job describing the time and place of the story that it's not so hard to accept the set of circumstances that allow Enola to embark on her own into a bustling and dangerous city. Of course, the keen character development that Springer devotes to her in the first half of the book also make it seem more feasible that the somewhat sheltered oddity that Enola is can make her way alone in the world. And, of course, with Sherlock Holmes as her brother, there is a lot about her personality that seems to be a given.
For great reviews of the Enola Holmes Mysteries by another enthusiastic reader (and Children's Librarian and former Newbery Judge) check out Elizabeth Bird's blog fuse#8. Her review of book #2 can be read at School Library Journal.
If your reader enjoys this book, the rest of the books in the series are:
Other mysteries and historical fiction set in the same time period include:
The Sisters Grimm Series by Michael Buckley
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Tunnels by Gordon and Williams
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
For slightly older, more mature readers, Philip Pullman has an excellent series that has also been filmed for Masterpiece Theater, The Sally Lockhart Quartet, which he describes as historical thrillers.