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Eleven-year-old Nell Warne is sent from upstate New York to Chicago to live with her aunt after the death of her father, just before Abraham Lincoln moves into the White House. Nell continues to exchange letters with her friend Jemma, whose free black family escaped to safety in Canada. Jemma isn’t sure what happened to her father, and Nell doesn’t know exactly what happened when her daddy shot Aunt Kitty’s husband, so she’s starting out with mysteries to solve when she learns that Aunt Kitty is the first female detective of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Aunt Kitty is ambivalent about keeping Nell; she’s reluctant to drop her at the grim Home of the Friendless, but her detective life isn’t conducive to keeping a child. What else can can Nell do but make herself indispensable as an assistant detective, solving her own mysteries along the way?

Lilah and I loved this book, and we were delighted with the historical note at the end talking about the real Kate Warne, who was indeed the first female detective in America. We will be looking for more information about her life. A warning to parents of animal lovers: there is an extremely disturbing bit involving the cat at the boardinghouse. I simply skipped it since I was reading aloud. The cat’s fate isn’t explicitly told, but it’s made pretty clear, and it’s horrible. Beyond that, the book is a delight. Nell is smart and resourceful, and brings a unique perspective to the cases her aunt is working. She is an engaging heroine, and Aunt Kitty’s reluctance to keep her, and reluctance to wash her hands of her, give her a welcome complexity. We’ll be looking for more books by Kate Hannigan.

Source disclosure: This book was a gift.

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