The Detective's Assistant

The Detective's Assistant
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Release Date
April 07, 2015
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Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless. Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present. Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this fast-paced adventure recounts feats of daring and danger...including saving the life of Abraham Lincoln!

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Historical Mystery with Girl Power!
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When young Cornelia loses her last immediate relative in New York, a local minister hunts down her deceased uncle's wife, Aunt Kitty, who is working for Pinkerton's Detective Agency in Chicago. Kitty (who now goes by Kate) is not happy to see Cornie, whom she rechristens Nell, because she reminds the aunt strongly of Nell's father, who was responsible for the death of his brother, her husband. Since Kate can't find any organization who will take Nell, she lets her move in to her room in a boarding house. Nell manages to keep the landlady happy by helping out with shopping and other chores. She also manages to get sucked in to many of Kate's cases, where she makes herself invaluable, playing with the children of people Kate needs to interview, and keeping her eyes and ears open for information. The two manage to break several cases, and get to travel to Philadelphia and other cities, much to Nell's delight. They meet the rich and famous, including a young presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Nell continues to correspond with her friend, Jemma, whose family had to leave quickly for Canada. They were free African Americans, but ran the risk of being shipped to the south. Jemma's father is still in the States, and when Nell hunts him down, she learns some secrets about her own family that make Kate feel a little more warmly towards her.

While Nell starts the book as a rough and tumble, rather unlikable character, we quickly see that she has had to raise herself, and her built-in survival defenses serve her well while Kate is trying to find somewhere else to put her. Once Nell knows that Kate won’t abandon her as well, she is able to become more pleasant, and show her intelligent, enterprising side. Kate also thaws a bit, and both evidence the difficulties that women must have had at the time when left to care for themselves, which was not an easy task. The incidental characters in the various mysteries are amusing and add a lot of flavor to the stories.

While much of the book revolves around the cases that Kate takes on, the biggest mystery is the one that Nell has to solve concerning her friend Jemma and her family. This was a fascinating treatment of the issue of slavery, and my only objection was that the story seemed somewhat skimmed over because of the in-depth descriptions of the cases. I wanted to know a lot more about Jemma, and would have liked to see her in more than Nell’s letters.

Hannigan has clearly done her research, and uncovered a fascinating woman in Kate Warne, who really did work for Pinkerton. Nell is a fabrication, but a good way to interest younger readers in this period of time. The two characters are an excellent way to meet the rich and famous of the day, and the details of ordinary life are finely drawn. The fact that there is plenty of action and adventure will lure readers who are not usually drawn to historical fiction, and delight those who are. Fans of Chibbaro’s historical mystery Deadly, as well as readers who enjoy action-packed mysteries such as Beil’s Red Blazer Girls or Runholt’s Kari and Lucas books, will find plenty of clues to follow and mysteries to solve with Kate and Nell.

The 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination will no doubt be covered in a wide variety of books for young people about this famous president’s career, but this engaging mystery offers a refreshing perspective of the time period before the Civil War. Not a lot is written about Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, and the fact that Hannigan introduces readers to this unique business with a healthy dose of girl power makes this a fresh and engaging historical novel.
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