Fuse #8

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Review of the Day: The Case of the Missing Marquess

Though a Rex Stout fan at heart, I've always enjoyed a good Holmesian drama. Now author Nancy Springer has given us one for the kiddies, and the book definitely has flair. It has received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal and makes for one helluva read. A lovely start to the 2006 year.

There's a real sense of relief that comes with reading a book that knows what it wants to do and then goes out and accomplishes it. Take Ms. Nancy Springer. Having given us some insight into Robin Hood's daughter ("Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest"), as well as that notorious King Arthur villainess ("I Am Morgan le Fay"), Springer turns her attention to a friend of her youth. According to this book, the author grew up with the "Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle". It was as a kid that she would be, "reading and rereading them over a period of years until she could find no more Sherlock Holmes stories to memorize". But rather than do as so many have done and continue Holmes' adventures (or, in some cases, that of his lady love Irene Adler) Springer had a better idea. Anyone who has read Doyle at any length knows that Holmes had a brother Mycroft (on whom Rex Stout's character of Nero Wolfe was partly based). But what about a sister? Holmes undoubtedly wouldn't have mentioned her to Watson and if she had any of the great detective's smarts her story would be a truly interesting tale to tell. With that thought in mind we come to "The Case of the Missing Marquess". A good old-fashioned mystery alongside an understanding of the role women were meant to play back in the 1800s, the book is fast-paced, truly enjoyable, and a great read for one and all.

When Enola Holmes's mother disappears without a trace on the day of her birthday, her daughter doesn't fret too much. Her mother often wanders off on her own. She's a singularly single-minded woman, after all, and has raised Enola to be the same. But when it becomes clear, however, that Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes is not coming back, Enola has no choice but to contact her two elder brothers: Mycroft and Sherlock. The men had not been home in years, owing partly to a fight they had had with the now missing Lady. On their return they are shocked at the state of things and Mycroft in particular becomes intent upon bending his stubborn little sister to his will. Enola has other plans in mind, however, and in no time she concocts a plan on escaping the rigid role both her brothers and society have assigned her. Along her journey she also gets wrapped up in the case of a missing heir to a Duke and finds herself thoroughly ensconced in the slimy backwaters of London's foulest dens. But if anyone's up to the task of battling villains and saving young heirs, it's a girl with the last name of Holmes.

As a children's librarian I hear no end of demands from stubborn young `uns for an unceasing and steady supply of mystery fiction. Kids love a good mystery, be it the fabulous "Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin or the tepid "Chasing Vermeer" by Blue Balliett. In spite of the demand, very few quality works of fiction fulfill this need. You could close your eyes, spin around in the children's room of a library or bookstore, and end up pointing at one of the five million mystery series out there, but GOOD ones are as rare as rubies. All the more reason why this book (hopefully only the first of more to come) will be greatly appreciated by kids of many persuasions.

Because you see, the writing is key. Though the book spends half its time getting Enola on the road, you don't feel that it ever goes any faster or slower than it should. Enola is not only engaging (she points out to Mycroft that the chances of marrying her off are probably fairly slim since, "I look just like Sherlock"), but also on top of things. She is very touched by her mother's disappearance but when it becomes clear that she is truly on her own, she rallies admirably. She even eschews the usual girl-dressing-up-like-a-boy conceit (OVERDONE conceit, I add) because she knows that if she is to hide from Sherlock she must do what he doesn't expect. That makes for especially good disguises on her part. Ones that make sense too. And there are plenty of ciphers, codes, clues, and neat twists to keep the book interesting for both kids and adults alike. I was delighted to find on more than one occasion that the book would surprise me with a twist that, had I been looking for it, I should have discovered on my own. I cannot quite figure out if the hidden numbers and letters on the cover of "The Case of the Missing Marquess" are a code, but I'm certain that enterprising youth everywhere will try to figure it out on their own.

There is a small problem with the essential conceit behind this book, of course. I mean, it starts off with a woman abandoning her daughter so that she herself can lead her own carefree life without worrying about a young `un. Say what you will about the difficulties faced back in the day, it's very hard to justify a mother leaving her child and without so much as a card or hug. Enola tries to come up with several justifications for her mom's actions, but when you get right down to it it's a nasty thing to do. She definitely could have taken Enola along with her. It just would have made for an entirely different story, and not one that Ms. Springer particularly wanted to tell.

All in all, Enola Holmes and her book make for a difficult-to-resist pairing. I've little doubt that kids will be clamoring for the next installment in the series and that this is only the beginning. A great combination of humor, history, and contemporary good sense. An excellent addition to any collection.


At 9:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In re: the observations in the penultimate paragraph about Mothers Who Abandon. It's not so strange an occurrence; there are some other examples in the Lit, including Ruth White's BELL PRATER'S BOY and the Sammy Keyes mysteries. And I'm not sure that the reasons behind Enola's mother's scoot are all that clearly revealed. We'll have to stay tuned, and see.

At 12:26 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Good point. And may I add that you are the third person this week to mention "Bell Prater's Boy" to me. I'm just gonna have break down and take out that book, it seems....


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