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“I apologize if the truth hurts, but let’s face it: family is something you make; it is the people you choose to be with. Not the ones you’re stuck with,” Aunt Kate. –The Detective’s Assistant
The Detective’s Assistant
by Kate Hannigan
Eleven-year-old Nell Warne couldn’t have imagined what awaits her when she arrives on her long-lost aunt’s doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows.
Much to Nell’s surprise, her aunt is a detective, working for the world-famous Pinkreluctanceational Detective Agency! Nell quickly makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate. . . and not just by helping out with household chores. As her aunt travels around the country solving mysteries, Nell must crack codes, wear disguises, and spy on nefarious criminals.
Nation-changing events simmer in the background as Abraham Lincoln heads for the White House, and Aunt Kate is working on the biggest case of her life. But Nell is quietly working a case of her own: the mystery of what happened the night her best friend left town.
Nell’s adventure paints a picture of life in the 1800s. When she is forced to live with her Aunt Kate, Nell quickly realizes that her aunt isn’t like most women—instead Aunt Kate takes on many disguises while solving mysteries. At first, Aunt Kate doesn’t trust Nell and doesn’t want to give the grieving girl a home, giving readers a small peek into the life of an orphan. The Detective’s Assistant also uses letters between Nell and her friend to delve into the topic of slave hunters. Even though the topic is explored in a kid-friendly manner, sensitive readers may be upset by the death of so many people.
Despite her aunt’s reluctance to give Nell a home, Aunt Kate makes sure Nell learns vocabulary, grammar, and math. Throughout the story, Aunt Kate is always correcting Nell’s speech. For example, Aunt Kate tells Nell, “And the proper word is isn’t, not ain’t. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress.” Nell also learns new vocabulary such as somnambulist. This highlights the importance of getting an education and adds fun to the story.
The Detective’s Assistant is sure to delight readers because of the interesting, complex characters as well as the cases that Aunt Kate and Nell help solve. Since the story is told from Nell’s point of view, the readers get an intimate look at Nell’s emotions. Nell struggles with the death of her family, how the slave trade affected people, and the possibility of being sent to an orphanage. All of these aspects make The Detective’s Assistant a fast-paced story with many surprises. In the end, Nell learns that “family meant taking the folks we’re stuck with and choosing to love them anyway.”
- A pickpocket takes Aunt Kate’s purse. Nell sees him “and with one swift stomp of my foot, I crashed the heel of my big brown boot onto his toes. The bandit let out a howl and began hopping on one leg.”
- When others notice their money is missing, the crowd “pounced on the skinny pickpocket like a pack of wolves.”
- In a letter, Nell’s friend tells her about slaves who were trying to go to Canada so they can live free. “And the next thing Mama knows, her friend’s neck is in a noose hanging from a tree.”
- Aunt Kate investigates a “murder by poison.” A woman’s “lover has succeeded in putting his wife in a pine box.”
- While babysitting a young girl, the girl treats Nell poorly. Her “shins ached from unexpected kicks, my arms were sore from vicious pinches, and my pride was wounded from insults to my general appearance and intellect.”
- Aunt Kate investigates a bank robbery. “A bank teller was murdered in cold blood, and money was stolen.” The bank teller was killed with a hammer and “three blows to the head.” Later the criminal confesses.
- Slave hunters stole a family and they “got sold off to the highest bidder.” The family was torn apart.
- Nell’s father, Cornelius, accidentally shoots and kills his brother. Cornelius was helping slaves escape to Canada. At night, “a man came riding up toward us—we could almost feel the hoofbeats. . . [a man] called for us to stop. . . And in a rush of panic that swept over all of us, your daddy fired his gun.”
- While Cornelius was helping slaves escape, slave hunters killed him. “His body washed up in the Chemung River.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Nell’s father, “saw the jailhouse for drinking and cheating at poker.” Nell’s father is often referred to as a drunk liar who gambles.
- Nell names her dog Whiskey. Nell “didn’t know a thing about liquor when I named her. But I heard my daddy say whiskey was pure gold.”
- While walking down the street, “a few menacing drunks pushed past, knocking both Aunt Kate and me off balance.”
- “Heck and tarnation” is used twice.
- Darn is used twice
- Nell calls a bratty girl a “little jackanapes.”
- Nell thinks that some boys are “dunderheads.”
- When a rebel starts talking about John Wilkes Booth, Nell thinks the rebel is an “illiterate oaf.”
- In order to gain a suspect’s trust, Aunt Kate pretends to be a fortune-teller. The suspect believes that “her brother’s ring warned him of storms at sea.”
- A man thinks the detectives use “voodoo magic to get those criminals to talk.” Others think the detectives use whiskey to get people talking.
- Nell couldn’t go to a funeral because “Daddy thought it was bad luck to have a child so close to the Grim Reaper.”
- Nell writes to a friend, saying her daddy “is splitting logs with the angels.”
- Someone asks Nell how her father made it “to the pearly gates of heaven.” Nell replies, “Through prayer, ma’am. Mine mostly, since he wasn’t the praying kind. . .”
- Aunt Kate says, “Frugality is a virtue. It says so in the Bible.”