The Secret Detectives- Ella Risbridger

The secret detectives by Ella Risbridger

In a word, Magnificent. Another one of those books I wobbled with finding the words to sum up how incredible it is.

The Secret Detectives is perfect for those who miss the books of Robin Stevens where Wells & Wong team up with The Pinkertons and yet, it is its own microcosm of perfection and mystery. I would indeed love to see more of this world and Ella’s middle grade writing.

The secret detectives by Ella risbridger
Cover art by Ray Tierney

In the aftermath of a cholera outbreak Isobel Petty finds herself an orphan in India and Mrs Colonel Hartington-Davis finds herself saddled with escorting the sullen and awkward Isobel back to England as she accompanies her own children to begin boarding school..

Sailing on the mailship the SS Mariana, the quiet luxury coupled with the smaller passenger manifest means it is hard not to notice everything around her from the question of just how many daughters does the French family have, to what exactly is going on with the German doctor and his odd salt water requests. But it is when Isobel and her new friend Sameer Khan witness somebody being thrown overboard in the middle of the night and NOBODY else notices a missing passenger that they are determined to uncover the truth, however impolite or uncomfortable it may be.

They seemed to fall for a long time. There was no splash, or if there was it was lost in the waves.

The Secret Detectives opens the reader to social and historical awareness layered within exciting and thrilling adventure story. There is razor-sharp reflection on the heavy inheritance of Empire and the distance both vast and minuscule that we are socially from those times as attitudes of class, ownership & racism pervade even over 125 years since this was set. 

People of a certain disposition will not like this book, but it is one that comes from truth and unflinchingly directs us to look at the darker side of a period in history that is lovingly lauded and over-romanticised but yet Ella still stays within the safe parameters of a middle grade adventure mystery. And ever more the brilliant for it, as unless we confront the past and challenge the collective amnesia, the debt we inherit will only grow. 

“I know you didn’t {mean to upset},” he said. “People mostly don’t. But they go on saying unfair things anyway. And being unfair altogether. And a person can get tired of it. I, myself, am exceedingly tired of it.”

Sam to Lettie

Curiously The Secret Detectives is a book that feels very modern in how it explores these concepts such as the tone with how Sam and his famous father are treated in public and private being from Indian heritage, and cleverly suggesting without diagnosing (as of course would be historically inaccurate) a neurodiverse protagonist. 

Yet it never feels incongruous or anachronistic to observe and honour these perspectives, racism, snobbery and prejudice hurt no matter what century or circumstances and it would be completely true to have children like Isobel but wafted away as ‘funny little things’ a good English boarding school will ‘sort out’.  Equally, Sam would make fans of Robin Stevens’ George smile as he too not only pokes the bear of British minority representation pre-Windrush but equally challenging the ethics of the Imperial ‘way’ whilst living within it.  

And then again the prose is delivered in a very crisp vintage style of language. No I’m not talking jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer, but there has been exceptional care taken to evoke a late Victorian prose and mannerism to the language, rhythm and cadence of the writing. Partially this will be due to Isobel’s neurodiversity but it suits the era too like it’s a perfect fit.

This may at first be a jolt to the average child reader but it soon warms and becomes most natural as we explore the children’s resonating thoughts and emotions, indeed more so as Isobel grows and adapts to companionship and it is a lovely experience. 

Did all adults have so many secrets? Did all adults have so many things they were afraid to have people know?… They had stumbled, Isobel thought, into such a strange world

Throughout the thought I kept returning to  was  ‘sonder ‘ where one is awoken by the realisation that others have rich and embroidered and deep lives with hopes, fears and dreams, and a inner mental world as varied & colourful as our own as a theme. This applies not only to Isobel our protagonist but to us as readers. 

For often it is is the case looking at a historical setting we often dismiss people in the past as ‘different’ even perhaps naive or not as intelligent as today, and indeed we see the children awakening to the complications of adult life and emotions when things had seemed so simple before. 

Adding in a neurodiverse angle, was one I felt startlingly resonant with, a revelation to myself that I no doubt came across as an Isobel when I was much younger and less able or aware I had to ‘pretend’, and probably even since then.  It is both a mirror for myself but a window for others to see the rich and vulnerable inner world of Isobel beneath the aloof exterior.

“Nobody ever suspects me of anything…I’m very likeable… Everyone says so. It’s partly because I’m pretty, but partly because I’m nice.”

“But you’re awful,” said Isobel.

“No worse than you, ‘ said Lettie .’ I just hide it better.”

Lettie explains to Isobel and Sam why she is best for the heist.

And a special note for Lettie. We’ve all known a Lettie, the beautiful child who knows how to charm the birds from the trees with adults, and yet is complicated, even a tad dark underneath. It would have been easy to turn golden haired Lettie into a spoiled horrid bully, most blonde girls are cast as such in modern MG so as a mother of two fair-haired girls I was actually completely delighted to see a complicated, flawed, twisty but ultimately good-hearted and willing to learn character in Lettie, with shocking self awareness of her ability to manipulate adults and a little wistful of how underestimated she is.

The continuous challenge, gentle education and all kinds of refusal to bow to tropes makes me endeared to Ella and The Secret Detectives and makes me want to recommend it to one and all, it’s a story that reaches across many minds and hearts and will provoke learning and reflection in so many more. 

The Secret Detectives by Ella Risbridger is published by Nosy Crow

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