April 26, 2015

The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Nicki Haddon Mystery

by Caroline Stellings
Second Story Press
152 pp.
Ages 12-16
March, 2015

I'm so sorry that I missed Caroline Stellings' first Nicki Haddon mystery, The Scratch on the Ming Vase (Second Story Press, 2013), but now that I've enjoyed The Secret of the Golden Flower, I'll go back and learn how this young kung-fu champion and spy-in-training found herself on an action-packed trajectory in aid of international security.

In The Secret of the Golden Flower, sixteen-year-old Nicki Haddon arrives in London, England with her handler and former family butler Fenwick to further her training with the British Secret Intelligence Service.  But, whilst Fenwick is summoned away to Buckingham Palace, Nicki heads to Fenwick's sister Emma's place where she will board.  Though her 40-something punker band mates, Dawn and Anika, and Anika's 18-year-old son Sid, are welcoming, Emma is less than kind and keeps Nicki en garde, just as the teen is about a flower vendor at the airport who was taking photos of her or with a friend of Sid's named Todd Bead, a heroin addict and gang member who had been stalking Nicki though he comes to warn Sid about the cops coming.

But Sid is arrested, ending up in Limehouse Prison, an unhealthy place for someone suffering from respiratory illness, such as the tuberculosis rampant in London's East End, and Nikki tries to unravel the connections between a major heroin syndicate, a series of lectures at the Natural History Museum, an old book Queen Victoria's grandsons had in their possession, and the involvement of Todd, Sid, one of Nicki's intelligence instructors, and others.

The subplots of The Secret of the Golden Flower are like petals of the titular flower: not dense and overwhelming but loosely overlapping, fragile and tender but foreshadowing something more powerful, even dangerous.  In fact, Caroline Stellings' Nicki Haddon is not unlike the flower itself, seemingly small and pretty, even delicate, perhaps a little vulnerable because of the secrecy of her heritage and adoption from China, but not one with whom you would mess, if you were wise.  Nicki is a teen with her own issues which help build her compassion for others, even heroin addicts and gang members such as Todd.
Their only option in life was to join a gang and learn to steal and use violence to try to get some control over their lives. (pg. 117)
I prefer Nicki to so many of the strong female protagonists of trendy YA lit. She is never over-the-top.  Sure, her being recruited as a spy for British Intelligence may seem unrealistic at first glance, but it never seems so in The Secret of the Golden Flower, and I suspect it is similar in The Scratch on the Ming Vase.  She just happens to be a clever and talented martial artist, with the right stuff to insinuate herself into situations in which she can problem-solve the mysteries within. And for those of you who wonder how she is able to manage all this with her family–e.g., don't her parents wonder what she's up to?–you'll need to read the books to see how seamlessly Caroline Stellings is able to integrate all these aspects of Nicki's life.

I've become quite impressed with the depth and diversity of Caroline Stellings' writing, from The Secret of the Golden Flower to her previous books including The Contest (Second Story Press, 2009), The Manager (Cape Breton University Press, 2013) and Gypsy's Fortune (Peanut Butter Press, 2014).  Whether it be picture books, historical fiction, middle grade fiction or action-mystery, I think Caroline Stellings will be on the CanLit for LittleCanadians lit radar from now on. 

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