While far from his best work, The Blind Barber (1934) by John Dickson Carr does contain the brilliant problem of a corpse appearing on a passenger liner mid-voyage with no passenger or crew member apparently having died to provide it. Ella Risbridger’s juvenile mystery debut The Secret Detectives (2021) works from the same principle, with 11 year-old Isobel Petty seeing someone thrown overboard one stormy night…and yet the next morning no-one is missing.
Travelling from India to England aboard mail ship S.S. Mariana, orphaned Isobel has been placed in the care of hypochondriac Mrs. Colonel Hartington-Davis and her two children, 10 year-old Letitia and 6 year-old Horace. Upon reaching England, Isobel knows that she will be placed into the care of a distant uncle in Yorkshire, and is under no illusions that Mrs. Hartington-Davis would like little more than to be free of her at the earliest possible opportunity. Because, see, Isobel is…well, she’s very difficult to like.
What especially marks out this novel is the frankly wonderful creation of Isobel Petty. While the urge must be strong to lean into Blytonesque charms of jolly chums having a gosh-golly-grand time when writing mysteries for younger readers, Risbridger’s decision to isolate Isobel on account of her prickly personality is a brave one that works admirably. And even when she finds a sympathetic ear in the form of other youngsters on the boat, the bonds formed are not always — ahem — plain sailing. A magnificently light hand is used in sketching Isobel’s background and responses to new and challenging situations, and while the tendency might be to wish to name and pigeonhole her precise set of difficulties, two intelligent decisions on Risbridger’s part preclude this.
First, we are in 1892, when children were rarely seen and certainly not to be heard from, so any analysis of what makes Isobel struggle so wouldn’t exactly fit into the era. And second, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it; the beauty of Risbridger’s creation is not that her behaviour is acceptable on account of Condition X, but that she behaves what might be considered unacceptably and finds people who are more than happy to accept and forgive her while challenging her outbursts and providing her with the opportunity to learn. If that sounds mushy and touchy-feely to you, I’m sorry to say that you’re missing the point — Risbridger takes by far the harder and more interesting path, and while walking it crafts some simply wonderful scenes of young people learning how to be young people.
The triumvirate at the core of this book is simply divine — Isobel’s discovery that the prim, proper, pleasing Letitia is just as intrigued by the mystery as she is coming as a shock in the most wonderful way…
“But you’re awful,” said Isobel.
“No worse than you,” said Lettie. “I just hide it better.”
…and the two girls, initially at loggerheads and learning slowly to appreciate the talents each can bring to bear on this most baffling of mysteries, are held in check by the warm-hearted and intelligent Sameer ‘Sam’ Khan, whose Sherlock Holmes obsession fuels the desire to investigate a crime they know no-one will acknowledge. Not only is Sam the mediating presence that calms the waters as their nascent detective agency gets underway, he also comes with a foot placed in the two worlds the girls have experience from only one side: as the son of an internationally-renowned doctor he has a status of sorts, but as a native of India he knows all too well the harm done by the words and attitudes casually thrown around by his wealthy, white confrères.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said, in a very small voice.
Sam looked at her and softened a little. “I know you didn’t,” 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.”
Consider, too, that Risbridger is writing this book from the perspective of children, and allowing those children to make the sorts of mistakes that come from ignorance before we learn better:
There was suddenly something unpleasant about Letitia’s voice: something hard and brittle, like sugar cooked too long. It sounded not like Letitia’s ordinary voice at all. It was, Isobel thought again, like she was copying something she’d heard someone else say.
This awareness, of course, also plays into the plot, where discussion about the sense of ignoring the crew where the potential murder is concerned, or the Agatha Christie-esque notion of overlooking the servant because they’re not “proper people” enables our clandestine sleuths to fix their attention on the passengers alone. As they try to untangle the various obscure and suspicious behaviours that see the finger of mistrust and conjecture point in just about every direction going (of course), the very grown-up problems surrounding these young people provide them with some interesting windows onto lives they had previously not considered (“…they stood in wonder of this strange adult thing that had touched them”). Plus, this works both ways: only really condescension and high-handedness is shown towards children, and so the adults aboard can be manipulated in a way that enables the investigation to occur.
Precisely how impossible this impossible disappearance is I shall leave up to the individual reader, since a lot of time is spent raising and then arguably not quite dismissing possibilities — stowaways, the frustration of precisely how many sisters are in that French family — and, I’ll be honest, I never quite understood why the crew were so easily discarded from consideration (in-universe, I mean — it’s necessary for the plot, but I don’t think the explanation given holds water…yeesh, I promise I’m not trying to think of these idioms). Risbridger’s love of a classically-styled mystery shines through, as the increasingly preposterous motives and practices discussed in chapter 12 (and the extended cameo by a Swiss gentleman of probably Belgian extraction) shows, and sometimes you’ve got to give people credit for sheer enthusiasm even if a leak might be found here and there. I shall tag this an impossible crime because I think it just squeaks in, but I will understand if you wish to disagree.
The solution when it comes is…fine. It works, in that I can see how these scheme could be pulled off and the cover-up detected, but the explanation is…far from smooth. I feel like there needs to be one particular thunderbolt moment to sell this type of illusion, and the sudden reeling off of an explanation surely a little too complex for the target market to follow doesn’t really sell you on what is supposed to have happened. We get there eventually, at I think the third time of someone trying to parse the sequence of events, but it’s a shame to come to the end of the case and feel like someone just pulled back a curtain to reveal lots of string connecting things and talked you through it for 40 minutes given how simple the idea is and how much more cleanly it could have been told. Plenty of people have stumbled at the summary of their first puzzle mystery, however, and it’s to be hoped that this book sells in sufficient quantities for Risbridger to write a second and show what she has learned here.
My main take-away from The Secret Detectives, however, is the brilliant one step forward, two steps back nature of the investigation and the core friendships alike (“Everyone loves their mothers!”), the hopeful and well-handled message of inclusion and acceptance, and the fact that the book is packed with some of the best kids-as-kids dialogue you’ll encounter this century:
“Nobody gets murdered in books for little girls.”
“Nobody?” Sam was horrified.
“No. They don’t think little girls are interested in murder.”
“But you are!”
“They don’t know that.”
Much like Isobel herself, this book is not perfect but becomes much more interesting as a result. It’s to be hoped the friends are back together and up to no good before too long.