#1039: Minor Felonies – The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006) by Nancy Springer

I think I’ve been dimly aware of Nancy Springer’s series centred on Enola Holmes, much younger sister of the more famous Sherlock and Mycroft, for a number of years, but it was only the recent(ish) filming of the first book which brought the series more firmly into my orbit.

Having now read series opener The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006) I find myself…conflicted. There’s much in Springer’s creation which is enjoyable and understandably appealing, but at the same time, having it as an ebook, it does feel like half the file was missing given the frank slimness of the endeavour when compared to so much being written for younger readers these days. Is 2006 so distant that the landscape for juvenile crime fiction has altered this much in the intervening years? I wouldn’t have thought so, but here we are. Hell, does that mean I’m getting old?

On her fourteenth birthday, Enola, who lives with her mother and two servants in the ramshackle Ferndell Hall, awakens to be told that Lady Eudoria, a.k.a “Mum”, has gone out for the day, leaving gifts for Enola to open with elderly retainer Lane and his wife. When Lady Eudoria had not returned by evening, suspicions are aroused; when her absence begins to extend one day at a time, the worst is naturally feared. Mycroft and Sherlock are called, returning to Ferndell for the first time since their father’s death a decade before, with various elements of the house’s running coming as a shock to the elder Holmes brother.

“What,” [Mycroft] cried, “has been done to the grounds?”

Startled, I protested, “Nothing!”

“Absolutely, nothing has been done, apparently for years! All is sorely overgrown—”

“Interesting,” Sherlock murmured.

“Barbaric!” Mycroft retorted. “Grass a foot tall, saplings springing up, gorse, bramble bushes—”

“Those are wild roses.” I liked them.

“Growing on what should be the front lawn? How, pray tell, does the gardener earn his pay?”

“Gardener? There is no gardener.”

It seems, then, that Mycroft has been sending his mother money for Ferndell’s upkeep which has not been spent with that end in mind. So where has it been spent? And is this related to Lady Eudoria’s vanishing?

In many ways, the most interesting thing about this book is the story of what happened before it started: Enola begins convinced that her brothers had nothing to do with her out of shame, only to learn that it was in fact an argument with their mother which resulted in their being banned from the family pile. Enola — yes, it’s ‘alone’ spelled backwards, which is pointed out in the opening line, lest anything like subtlety intrude — is also still trying to process the death of her father (“I wondered whether Father had really expired of mortification due to my existence, as the village children liked to tell me, or whether he had succumbed to fever and pleurisy as Mum said.”) but, this aside, has enjoyed somewhat uninhibited upbringing foraging in the grounds and finding all manner of little keepsakes to call her own. Mycroft, then, realising that no governess has been employed to give Enola correct schooling, vows to pack her off to boarding school and — long story short — Enola escapes, intent on finding both their mother and the answers to the mystery that surrounds her.

This lasts for about one chapter, and then things…change.

At the halfway point — on her way to catch the train to London — Enola learns of the kidnapping of 12 year-old Viscount Tewkesbury and…suddenly decides that she’s going to investigate that, deciding that it is her calling in life “as surely as I knew my real name was Holmes”. She goes to London, finds the young viscount — who has run away from a contraolling home life to be a sailor — almost immediately, some mild peril ensues and young Tewky decides he doesn’t want a life at sea after all and returns to his family. And Enola uses her mother’s money to set up a business as “[t]he world’s first professional, logical, scientific perditorian,” (“…from the Latin perditus, meaning ‘lost’.”) splitting some frankly senseless hairs in the desire to push this as a piece of empowerment over “my brother Sherlock be[ing] The World’s Only Private Consulting Detective” and this being totally, completely, utterly different to that. Uh-huh, sure.

And then the book ends.

It’s a weird brew, because nothing about any plot strand is ever really explored — mild spoilers, but Lady Eudoria isn’t found, the experience of finding young Tewky doesn’t tie in to that mission at all, and we’re left oddly poised twixt cup and lip, with a deep sense of dissatisfaction at having intended to read one book only to have been presented with half each of two completely different stories. When you think of how neatly Stuart Gibbs’ Funjungle books tie in their various threads, or how many incidents fill out an average Adventures on Trains novel this compares very poorly. It’s not without merit, and Springer writes about the backstreets Victorian London with all the thrilling horror that you could expect to be packed into a book for this young an audience, but as a narrative this lacks focus and any real believability, and I came away somewhat deflated.

Still, some interesting reflections of the lack of female parity in society are well-handled…

[M]any times Mum had explained to me how unfair the laws were. If a woman laboured to write and publish a book, for instance, any money it earned was supposed to go to her husband. How absurd was that?

…and, for all the horror evinced at the expectations of ladies’ clothing, it’s pleasing to see the expectation that life was always easy for men addressed as perhaps a little simplistic. And, too, there are flashes of nice writing which help the book pass quickly…

Wait. I saw something. Rising over the house-tops like an ostrich feather upon a lady’s hat stood a white plume in the grey sky. The smoke of a steam locomotive.

…I just wish there was more substance to what unfolds. I also wish we had a little more consistency from our characters — Enola is capable of some good reasoning where her mother’s outfit is concerned, but later seems unable to think who could have passed on some information to blackguards when only one person was in possession of said information — and a bit more faith shown in Sherlock, given that this only exists, after all, because the coat-tails of that famous gentleman are so damn long and roomy. Seriously, the notion that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t know how to crack a simple cipher really does no-one any favours at all, and falls like a damp squib as an attempt to make our teenage sleuth to appear more brilliant than those around her. Again, compare this to Hal in The Adventures on Trains series or Funjungle’s Teddy Fitzroy, who triumph because of a legitimate ability to look at things in a way others don’t and so earn their position as intelligent detectives…yeah, no wonder this left me a little cold.

And so, what of my first encounter with Enola Holmes? Without being especially impressed, I can say that I’ll read more of these if only because they’re easy on the brain and may yet improve. Will I devour them avidly? No. Do I wish they were more transparent about when they were taking place in the Holmes timeline? Yes, which may alone be enough to get me reading further. And, hey, maybe I’ll check out the film, too, and see if that improves on things here, since there really is some fertile soil here, even if the author herself doesn’t farm it to the extent that it deserves. Watch this space.


The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer

  1. The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006)
  2. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (2007)
  3. The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (2008)
  4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (2008)
  5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline (2009)
  6. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye, a.k.a. The Case of the Disappearing Duchess (2010)
  7. Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche (2021)
  8. Enola Holmes and the Boy in Buttons (2021)
  9. Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade (2022)

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