When Isobel Petty is orphaned, she finds herself being taken away from her home in India and sent to live with a distant uncle in England. On board the S.S. Marianna, she witnesses a shocking act – somebody being thrown overboard in the middle in the night. But when the ship’s captain insists that nobody is missing, Isobel and her two new reluctant friends must solve two mysteries – the identities of both the murderer and the victim – before they reach England and the culprit has the chance to escape.
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In this new and exciting middle-grade mystery, Ella Risbridger takes us to a time and place full of complications – India under British rule. Though most of the story takes place on a mail ship headed to England, the tension and discrimination of the time still persists, especially with a central character being the son of an Indian man and an English woman, and the main character, though the daughter of English people, doesn’t seem to quite take after them in looks. Risbridger uses the setting very deftly to show the way people native to their country were belittled, ignored, and looked down upon in contempt by their colonisers, and this weaves in with the mystery that Isobel and her two friends must solve.
Isobel is a very interesting character. She has spent the first eleven years of her life alone, and now, being left an orphan, has to travel with a well-to-do English family and put up with their perfect daughter Letitia. She keeps a notebook in which she writes everything she observes, preferring to watch those around her and learn their rules rather than speak and join in with them. She’s the perfect mix of angry, observant, and hopeful, and I enjoyed reading this story from her perspective. Sam, the final in the detective trio, is also brilliant, and a joy to read. I have to say Risbridger did a tremendous job with writing these children, making them both complex and simple in the way only children are – seeing the world still as a just place where things happen the way they should, yet understanding that adults are fallible and life is complicated, and their own feelings might be as well.
The mystery itself I also found compelling. Usually, when reading a middle-grade detective story I tend to be able to predict the ending about half-way through because of the hints that a younger reader might not pick up on, but in the case of The Secret Detectives I must confess I was stumped until the last, and I enjoyed having the three detectives explain the solution to me. My one complains would be to say that, due to the nature of the setting, things can get a little repetitive. Being on a ship, there are fixed schedules, and the characters spend a lot of the time talking over hypothesis, then being called away to a meal, and then having to squirrel away a little bit of time before the next one comes around. The narrator does address this, though, and the children find it equally as frustrating that their time isn’t exactly their own, so it’s only a small complaint on my side.
Overall, a brilliant read that will appeal to younger readers as well as those, like me, who still like children’s books. It’s fresh while still building on a long-standing tradition of English detectives and history, and the characters are entirely original and fun.