Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dash It All! The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline (An Enola Holmes Mystery) by Nancy Springer


Still in her deep disguise as Miss Meshle, the supposed clerk of her fictitious alter ego, Dr. Leslie Ragostin, Scientific Perditorian of missing persons, Enola Holmes comes home from her day's work of detecting to find her landlady in a state. Widowed by the Crimean War thirty-six years before, the very deaf and elderly ("She must be over fifty!" Enola remarks to herself) Mrs. Tupper has received a cryptic and threatening note and begs Enola to help her. Enola agrees reluctantly.

Enola is still in hiding from Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, whose brotherly plans to stash her away at a finishing school, imprisoned in whaleboned corsetry, until safely ensconced in a satisfactory Victorian marriage strike fear in her independent heart. To keep her freedom, she knows she must not make herself noticed by making inquiries among the gentile social circles in which her brothers move, specifically that of the venerable Florence Nightingale, whose intervention saved Mrs. Tupper from sure death in the typhoid-ridden Crimean conflict. But before Enola can choose a strategy, Mrs. Tupper is abducted at knife-point by two men, one a ruffian, one a well-spoken gentleman, and her lowly lodgings ransacked from top to bottom.

Going through the detritus of their search for a clue to their purpose, Enola finds nothing of import, but her eye is caught by an elegant mid-century-styled blue silk gown and its enormous horsehair crinoline, strangely adorned with a hastily basted-on ribbon elaborately embroidered with a series of roses, daisies, and leaves. Soon Enola herself discovers that she is being stalked by a suspicious gentleman whom she nicknames "Classic Profile." Learning that Florence Nightingale is still alive, Enola manages to sneak herself into her bedchamber to discover the connection between Nightingale, presumably "The Bird," and "Carrier Pigeon," apparently Mrs. Tupper. Using the family talent for dissembling, disguise, and observation which she shares with Sherlock, Enola also notices that Nightingale's home is decorated with many examples of elaborate embroidery like that on on the crinoline and by many Victorian silhouettes, one of which is a perfect ringer for her pursuer, "Classic Profile."

Then everything falls into place when an overheard conversation in a stylish women's club and a quick look at Morse Code in their Encyclopaedia Britannica reveals that her transcription of the embroidered design on the crinoline is indeed in code and reveals that Mrs. Tupper was an unwitting go-between intended to transport evidence of a vast military supply fraud to Lord Whimbley, an advisor close to Queen Victoria. Now, many decades later, that coded ribbon is the key to the ruination of the rising political career of the current Lord Rodney Whimbley, and Enola realizes that Whimbley's own brother, the evil Geoffrey, is the would-be blackmailer who is holding the unwitting Mrs. Tupper as hostage.

But just as Enola dons yet another disguise to penetrate the Whimbley townhouse to free Mrs. Tupper, she learns that there is another detective on the case, none other than her brother, Sherlock Holmes, also in deep disguise and simultaneously seeking entrance to the Whimbley house. Now Enola knows she must elude two pursuers--Geoffrey, who is willing to kill both Mrs. Tupper and herself if necessary and her over-protective big brother who wants both to solve the case and resume his patriarchal role as protector and manager of her life.

Nancy Springer's latest in her Enola Holmes Mysteries, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline is an impossible-to-put-down addition to this marvelously constructed series. The atmosphere is deliciously Sherlockian, with its late Victorian London setting and with a fourteen-year-old girl sleuth who outdoes Nancy Drew in her boldness, intelligence, and chameleon-like daring-do. A not-to-be missed new entry for mystery fans and lovers of fine storytelling alike.

My reviews of earlier books in this delightful series can be seen here.

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