Our daughter has a game at school—though she would say it’s totally serious—where she’s started a detective agency. To the casual observer, it would seem like a complex storyline: she’s recruited other classmates who have code words and secret handshakes, she has plans to recruit agents in other schools, and there is even a rival detective agency with double agents.
But my daughter sighs and says the agency hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet. “We need a murder, a theft, or a poisoning.”
Thanks, Robin Stevens.
I don’t remember how I first learned of the Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series (published in the United Kingdom as the Murder Most Unladylike series), but the books have become favorites in our house; I’ve checked them out for my personal reading when one needs to go back to the library before I can get to it, and we’ve purchased the UK books that haven’t made it to the US yet. They’ve spawned a strong love for the whole genre in my daughter, and we now prioritize mysteries when putting books on hold at the library.
While these mysteries are slotted at the middle-grade reading level, they’re not “kid mysteries” in the sense of being silly or low-stakes; think Agatha Christie (a clear influence) and not Encyclopedia Brown. Each book features a murder (or more), and the two girl protagonists have to outwit the adults around them. There’s no obvious-to-kids sex, but the books describe adult relationships ranging from girls “canoodling” at their boarding school to affairs, mistresses, betrayals, and heartbreak all around. These stories don’t talk down to kids.
The standout maneuver in this series is picking Hazel Wong as the narrator. Though her Hong Kong family is very wealthy—wealthier than Daisy’s gentry family—she’s the lone Chinese girl at a posh all-girls British boarding school in the 1930s and routinely combats casual, ignorant racism even as she tries to understand and fit into the odd culture she finds herself in. She’s also more thoughtful than Daisy Wells, her best friend and co-detective, an aristocratic British girl who barrels ahead and gets away with everything because she’s pretty and her family is titled. Though Daisy often refers to Hazel as her Watson, it’s clear that Hazel’s more measured thinking is, more often than not, the correct path. But both girls are very clever and bring unique insights to their cases; it’s not that one is always right and the other wrong.
The mysteries in the books are well-thought-out, with evidence trickling to the reader while the characters chase down false leads and red herrings before the denouement in which the girls outmaneuver the local police in the nick of time; they also take place against a historic backdrop of the upper class of 1930s England with vivid settings. Stevens fleshes out Daisy’s estate from book two so well that I used it as a memory palace. The girls feel real; they have dysfunctional families and a complicated relationship with each other even as they’re best friends, and we get to see them grow and mature throughout the series.
I’m glad my daughter isn’t finding murders and poisonings at her school, but I’m equally glad that she’s found compelling, inspiring characters who push her to daydream about what might happen if she did.