A murder mystery. With a historical setting. Taking place on board a ship.
These were three good reasons for me to be disposed to love this book and I am happy to say that it did not let me down. Isobel, Sam and Lettie are three very different children who meet and get to know each other on board a mail ship from Indian to England. Ella Risbridger describes as it as a ‘prequel to The Secret Garden…Sort of.’ She uses the back story of Mary Lennox as the basis for the character of Isobel because she loves Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book and because, as an adult, she has some problems with the racism inherent in it. It is many years since I read The Secret Garden and it was never a particular favourite of mine so I’m taking Ella’s thoughts about it on trust. (Maybe, if I ever clear my to-be-read shelf I’ll go back and re-read it as an adult.)
Anyway knowledge of The Secret Garden is not necessary to enjoyment of The Secret Detectives. So back to it. Isobel is an unloved orphan travelling to England in the care of pretty and well-behaved Lettie’s mother. Sam is the motherless half English-half Indian son of an eminent scientist. Independently, the three children witness a murder and join together to solve it in the face of adult disbelief and dismissal.
Sam is a precocious child with an extensive vocabulary and wide general knowledge. He is sensitive about his dual heritage and the way Indians are treated in their own country. Letty suffers from being pretty with winning ways. She’s caught between enjoying the attention she is given and resenting being under-estimated. Isobel is sullen and self-centred, angry that her parents were remote from her even while they were alive. And she’s apprehensive about being sent to Yorkshire to live with unknown relatives, having lived all her life in India.
The book is as much about these three and their developing friendship as it about solving the mystery. The latter is the mast on which the plot is hung but the former breathes life into it. Ella Risbridger makes use of the tropes of the Golden Age of Crime (although, given the late Victorian setting, it is Sherlock Holmes rather than Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey who is the children’s role model) and deploys them well. The mystery and its untangling are satisfying. The plot’s pacing is good and the timing of the small revelations feels natural.
In some ways, much as I love an old-fashioned murder mystery, it wouldn’t have mattered to me what the story was about. I love this book primarily for its setting. I spent a few of my earliest (pre-birth) months on board a ship sailing from Melbourne to Southampton and, as a result (not scientifically proven – sorry Sam) there is nowhere I am happier. And Ella sets her scene beautifully. I can feel the motion of the ship, smell the salt of the sea and feel smug that the storm does not bother me.
As an adult Ella says that she feels uncomfortable about aspects of The Secret Garden and she says that her book is her ‘trying to explain the things I saw that seem – now more than ever – to be wrong. There’s only one murder in this murder mystery, but it stands for a million more preventable deaths, too, because of the systemic racism of the British government in India. Which is, of course, the same racism in The Secret Garden‘. It is Sam, in the difficult position of being Indian and English, who draws attention to the inequalities in the country in which all three children have grown up. Unlike Lettie and Isobel he has experienced them.
I think all these elements are a lot to squeeze into 330 pages but, by and large, it’s successful. I’m torn between wanting more and less consideration of the racism inherent in the British rule of India: more because it’s a huge subject, and less sort of for the same reason. It’s hard to do it justice in this forum. And there’s also the always difficult position of representing the past as it was whilst ensuring that it does not go unchallenged. And then the sea-loving part of me would have liked more detail about the ship and life aboard. I do think that Ella was clever in choosing a mail boat and not a passenger liner. It certainly makes the murder mystery much more manageable.
I know one should never judge a book by its cover but I have to draw attention to the wonderful cover of The Secret Detectives. It’s by Ray Tierney and it sums up the book beautifully, a book I steamed through. My intention had been to read it in sections in between reading and writing other things but I soon realised that that would be impossible. Ella’s writing and plotting and storytelling made me want to keep going and, in the end, I read it in one sitting. I’ll certainly be recommending this book generally and more than likely I’ll be buying it for young readers I know.