January 25, 2015

The Case of the Missing Moonstone: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 1

by Jordan Stratford
Art by Kelly Murphy
Alfred A. Knopf
216 pp.
Ages 9-13
January, 2015

Devastated with the loss, to marriage, of the only governess she has ever known, eleven-year-old Ada Byron finds comfort in numbers and the wicker basket of her hot air balloon tethered to the house in Marylebone Road, London.  Except for the silent butler, Mr. Franklin, and two house maids, Ada is virtually alone.  Her father, Lord Byron, was killed years earlier and her mother, Baroness Wentworth, bitter with her husband's infidelity and life choices, is often absent.  But all changes for Ada when her new tutor, Mr. Percy Snagsby, and fellow student, Mary Godwin, 14, arrive.

While Ada is disinclined to accept her new educational situation, calling Mr. Snagsby "Peebs" and imaging a cannon from which to shoot him, Mary is very appreciative of it, thrilled with being tutored alongside the titled and wealthier Ada at her much grander home.  With time and the benefit of Mary's compassion and social competencies, the two girls become friends, complementing each other beautifully.  In fact, reading about criminals in the newspaper, the two decide to become a secret constabulary, the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Still trying to work within the social confines experienced by women at the time, the girls take on the case of Miss Rebecca Verdigris, whose maid falsely confesses to stealing her Acorn of Ankara pendant, a birthday gift from Rebecca's late uncle. With Ada's quirky brain and logic and Mary's benevolence and civility, the partners attempt to exonerate the maid, Rosie Sparrow.

Although based on historical figures, Ada and Mary are truly unique young ladies, befitting those of different social standings and family situations.  Ada has learned to be self-reliant, appreciative of her books and numbers i.e., that upon which she can depend. Mary, more mature and attentive to those around her, is fully aware of society's expectations and allowances, and acts as the voice of reason in their friendship and the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Take this sample dialogue between the two girls.
"Because," Mary said guiltily, "sometimes you need to be careful about what you say and when you say it."
"That's silly.  There are just things to know, and people should know them and that's that."
(pg. 127)
Luckily, Jordan Stratford plays up their differences, similarly depicted in Kelly Murphy's quaint drawings, and demonstrates the innate humour of their attitudes.
"How are we to find Rosie in here?"
Ada pointed to the right. "This way."
"How do you know?" asked Mary.
"I don't.  I'm just guessing. But if I'm wrong, the other way will still be there."
(pg. 111)
Though Jordan Stratford takes some liberties with historical timelines–making Ada eleven and Mary fourteen years of age–he stays true to the essence of the two girls and their interests and personalities.  Ada who will become better known as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), mathematician, writer and essentially the world's first computer programmer, is the beautiful mind of The Case of the Missing Moonstone.  Mary Godwin, daughter of writer Mary Wollstonecraft, will marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818).  Similarly, Jordan Stratford uses the known friendship between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, as well as Ada Lovelace's relationship with Charles Babbage, for additional historically-accurate subplotting.

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency is a welcome series for middle-grade readers, providing an offbeat historical perspective to solving mystery.  I look forward to further cases, including The Case of the Girl in Gray, No. 2 in the series, scheduled for release August, 2015.

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