Susan's Reviews > The Detective's Assistant

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan
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bookshelves: 2018, historical-fiction, older-children-ya, set-in-north-america

I had trouble with this book and debated between giving it two, and even sometimes one stars and four stars. So, I settled on a generous three.

On the one hand, I enjoyed the stories and adventures of the characters. I appreciated the setting in the mid-late 1800s in the U.S., an interesting time in their history. I also enjoyed that the author highlighted a character (Kate Warne) who was based on a real, intelligent, kick-ass woman who is worth noting. The addition of Nell and another female character added dimension to the book and the inclusion and highlighting of interesting female characters is a much-needed addition to the dearth of literature of this type for young people, and really often even older people. Finally, I also enjoyed that there was a series of smaller mysteries - both those for Pinkerton and those in the lives of Nell, Kate, Jemma, and their families - to solve, rather than one over-arching one through the book; I found that keep the book moving along and engaged my interest well.

On on the other hand, I had some difficulties with Nell. She never seemed to act her age, with her age being difficult to know. At the start of the book she is said to have experienced ten summer, quickly stating for herself that it had been eleven, meaning she was a best 12 years old, though the blurb does say 11. Later in the book she repeatedly says she is '13 or there about.' Eleven is different enough from thirteen that 'there about' seems to not apply. The book does not read as if two years have passed, so I do not know where the extra two years have come from. Either way, Nell did not behave as a 10, 12, or even 13 year old. Much of the time she acts as if she is in her mid-t0-late teens, even at one time noting that 16 year olds mistook her for one of them - and the way she is often portrayed her behaviours seemed more inline with this age group. On the other hand, she often behaved in much younger ways, throwing temper tantrums when upset at her aunt, and creating so-called ciphers in her letters that even much younger children could solve (I mean really, people are not supposed to know that 'Mrs. Ippy' means Mississippi?, seriously?!?).

Additionally, I have to ask how a supposed 11-13 year old girl passed, repeatedly, for a full-grown man. Even if she were tall (and there was no indication of that until the end of the book (view spoiler) I have difficulty seeing how she would have passed as a man - I would not have bought it if an 11-13 year old boy had done it, so why would I buy it if a girl had?

Getting back to the inconsistencies in Nell's ages (and yes, it was ages rather than age) and timelines, the book has timeline problems in other areas, where the impression is left that Nell's father had died and her friend Jemma had left the country within weeks or at most months but then these events are spoken of in terms of 'many years'. It was as if Hannigan did not care to keep track of her own timelines.

Finally, where I really wanted to give two and even one stars, was Kate's treatment of Nell. The constant blaming of Nell for the actions of Nell's father, the conditional non-love she showed Nell, the placing a so-called 11 year old in perilous situations, and the constant threats to send her to an orphan asylum essentially amounted to emotional and psychological abuse. I supposed in those days children were treated differently and such considerations were likely not part of the culture for children. However, this book was written well into the 21st Century and we do consider the physical, mental, and emotional health of children. I would argue we do not give nearly enough consideration and care about childhood abuse even today. But, Kate's treatment of Nell was presented uncritically in the book, further normalizing the idea that it is OK to abuse children in this way. It is wrong to send this message to young readers, even tacitly. Actually, it is wrong to tacitly send this message to any reader.

On a related note, I was really creeped out that full-grown man was regularly flirting with Nell, who was supposedly 10-13 years old (yuck!) and that everyone treated his behaviour as if it were normal. Again, perhaps that was normal for the times? (I do not know), but it is not normal for these times and to write it that way, Hannigan is again normalizing such disgusting behaviour to today's young readers and in a world of rape culture, today's young readers can really do without that - I know this older reader could have done without it.

So, the book gets a generous three stars because the overall storylines and setting were enjoyable. But, on many levels deserved only one or two stars because of the timeline inconsistencies, the unbelievability of Nell's actions vs. supposed age, and especially the normalizing of abuse and creepy behaviours toward a child.
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Reading Progress

December 28, 2017 – Shelved
Started Reading
March 20, 2018 – Finished Reading

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