Sunday, February 15, 2015

Scientific History Mystery: The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency) by Jordan Stratford

Eleven-year-old Ada Byron (Lady Ada Byron, Countess, to be exact) is in a terrible snit, hidden out in her redoubt, the wicker basket of her self-made hot air balloon moored above the roof of her London house in Marylebone. Her governess has left to be married, to be replaced by a rather silly-looking young tutor, who introduces himself as Percy B., er, Snagsby. In a further bad turn, there is a girl named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who is to be educated with her by the questionable Mr. Snagsby, whom Ada quickly nicknames "Peebs." Ada is not pleased.

"It's not fair that Miss Coverlet had to go and marry dumb Cecil. It's not fair that she's not here and you are. It's not fair that my mother has gone to live in the country! It's not fair that I can't just be left alone."

"Lady Ada, if I'm to be your tutor..."

"You're not! Go away. There's no one for you to tute."

"I'm quite certain that's not a word," offered Percy, as he hung from the mooring rope of Ada's balloon.

Ada lives alone with her servants and her self-designed computing machine, and while she has immense mathematical understanding, encouraged by her only friend, mathematician Charles Babbage, she totally lacks any social skills, including combing her hair and changing her frock. But somehow she and Mary form a sort of friendship. Ada's tutor is Mary's only refuge from a miserable boarding school for young ladies, and being tutored in the mansion of the mad, bad, dead great poet Lord Byron is quite a thrill, so Mary turns her considerable social skills to placating Ada with her new arrangement. Glad to have escaped her mother's control, Mary is delighted to be taught by Peebs, and little by little, Ada is enticed away from her mathematical books and her computing device, named the Byron Lignotractatic Engine, or BLE. Restless under the constraint of being proper young ladies which makes them virtual prisoners in Ada's lavish house, Mary casts around for something romantic and exciting to do.

She introduces Ada to the daily newspapers, and the two take particular interest in the crime reports. Then Mary comes up with an idea that excites even Ada. They are to become "a secret constabulary," The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, and solve crimes. Engaging a ragamuffin boy named Charles to place their ad with the Times, the would-be sleuths are soon presented with their first case.

According the daily news, a unique necklace, "The Acorn of Ankara," disappears from the boudoir of a young bride-to-be Rebecca Verdigris. Her maid Rosie readily admits to the crime, but will say nothing about why the necklace was taken or where it is. Her mistress believes her maid innocent, but cannot explain why she would confess. But when Mary and Ada talk their way into Newgate Prison to visit Rosie Sparrow, the maid tearfully admits that she did not take the necklace, but saw Rebecca's fiance' Mr. Datchery, walking down the corridor from Rebecca's room, starring intently at the misappropriated jewel. Still, as Rebecca points out, why would her fiance' steal her rare jewelry when it would become his, as would everything else she has, as soon as they are married?

Clearly someone compelled the young man to take the jewel against his will, for the benefit of the real thief. But how could that happen? The only explanation the Wollstonecraft detectives can come up with is the new theory of "animal magnetism" expounded by Franz Mesmer. Could the missing moonstone acorn have the power to mesmerize?

There is plenty of clever detecting and not a little harrowing adventure, including an airborne pursuit of the real thief in a stolen steamboat down the Thames in Ada's hot air balloon, in Jordan Stratford's The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 1) (Random House, 2015). With two highly intelligent young girl sleuths and many unexpected twists of plot, Stratford's first book is an offbeat but top-selling entry among the many mysteries offered to middle readers. The cast of characters is a veritable Who's Who (or Who-Will-Be-Who) of 1826. Ada Byron becomes Ada Byron Lovelace, whose work with Charles Babbage gives her claim to have been the first computer programmer; Mary Godwin becomes Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley (the true identity of "Peebs") and the author of the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein; and Charles, the girls' book-loving go-between, becomes author Charles Dickens ("Who the dickens is that boy?" as Peebs asks).

There is abundant wit and a couple of young ladies way ahead of their time, the charming illustrations of Kelly Murphy, and an author's note which reveals the facts about the real Peebs, Ada and Mary, as well as Dickens, Babbage, and Ada and Mary's accomplished mothers, mathematician Anna Isbella Byron and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

This new mystery series promises to please fans of Spencer's The Mysterious Benedict Society or Sherlock's wayward sleuthing little sister in Springer's rousing The Enola Holmes Mysteries (See related reviews here.)

"A good fit for Common Core curricula and a fun overall read, this is a winner," says School Library Journal.

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