The Detective's Assistant

Book review by
Tracy Moore, Common Sense Media
The Detective's Assistant Book Poster Image
Action-packed female detective story champions smarts.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

The value of family; women can do anything men can do; education is important; the importance of being challenged in life; the value of using your brain to solve problems; choosing to love the family you've got.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Aunt Kitty is hardworking, disciplined, and caring and only wants what's best for Nell; she encourages her to find her own way in the world by using her brain and skills and not just marrying. Nell is headstrong and street-smart, genuinely curious and ambitious. Jemma is a good friend who helps Nell unravel her past. The Pinkerton detectives are champions of Aunt Kitty and Nell as female detectives in an era not known for valuing women in careers.

Violence & Scariness

Little direct violence, but many story lines involve loss from death. Nell's an orphan whose mother, father, aunt, uncle, and brothers all have died from illness or murder. As female detectives, they investigate alleged murderers and thieves. In one scene, a brawl in the street between two men is a ruse for pickpocketing. A woman uses chipmunk blood to stage a crime scene.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Detective's Assistant is a funny, history-filled novel from Kate Hannigan based on the true story of the first female detective in history, Kate Warne, and her imagined relationship with a long-lost niece, 11-year-old orphan Nell. Together, as the United States approaches civil war, they solve crimes as undercover detectives. Though themes of loss and death, alleged murder, and thievery permeate the novel, it's a stunning, fast-paced yarn that champions smarts, problem-solving, women, and the importance of family. Great role models for girls.

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What's the story?

When Cornelia Warne arrives at her Aunt Kitty's house looking for a place to live, she meets a no-nonsense, gruff woman who has every intention of placing the child in a nearby orphanage. But Cornelia -- whom Aunt Kitty quickly renames Nell -- slowly convinces Aunt Kitty that her street smarts are of use to Kitty's work as the first female detective for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. Together, they solve crime after crime through quick, fearless thinking, while Nell transforms from a dirty street urchin into an educated, poised young lady and Nell uncovers some poignant truths about the family she lost and the family she's gained.

Is it any good?

THE DETECTIVE'S ASSISTANT blends action, high ideals, real history, and heart into one fast-paced read. Here, a young woman finds an unlikely mentor in her stern aunt, who inspires in her a drive and ambition she might never have known. Though readers will become engaged with the story of real-life female detective Kate Warne and the events that led up to the Civil War, there also are some messy, nice ideas about what family really means and how important it is for girls to build a skill set and solve problems on their own.

History lovers will find lots to dig into here, and adventure fans will enjoy real tests of courage for the two headstrong female protagonists, as well as good humor and the very reassuring idea that we can often make a great family out of the one we've got.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about The Detective's Assistant's portrayal of women in the 1860s. Is it common for women to be detectives? What makes Kate and Nell good at it? What does Nell learn about her potential as a woman from the experience that's unique to the era?

  • The Detective's Assistant presents an interesting question about family: Is it the people you choose or the people you're stuck with? And what does Nell conclude about the nature of family in the end?

  • What does Aunt Kitty teach Nell about problem-solving and education? How is this different from the way women were educated during the Civil War?

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