Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Detective's Assistant

The Detective's Assistant

Kate Hannigan
For ages 8 to 11
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015   ISBN: 978-0316403511

To say that Cornelia Warne has been singularly unlucky over the last few years is an understatement. In close succession she has lost her mother, brothers, and recently her father was shot and killed. Not having a home, friends, or close kin it seems a sure thing that she is going to end up in an orphanage, but her local pastor, the Right Reverend is determined to find Cornelia a home.

Thus is it that Cornelia and the Right Reverend travel from New York state all the way to Chicago so that the man can deliver the unwanted child to her uncle’s widow. Aunt Kitty has no interest in taking in Cornelia, but the Right Reverend manages to make his escape, leaving Cornelia behind. Cornelia is not looking her best - dressed as she is in her dead father’s boots, boy’s pants and a shirt - and Aunt Kitty is clearly very displeased that she has turned up.

The very morning after Cornelia’s arrival Aunt Kitty takes her to the Chicago Home For the Friendless. One look at one of the pitiful residents of the home is enough to soften even Aunt Kitty’s heart and she takes Cornelia back to the boarding house where she lives. Cornelia promises to do her part to pay for her keep and soon she is helping the owner of the boarding house with her grocery shopping and other chores. Perhaps, if she proves to be no trouble and is useful, Aunt Kitty will not try to send Cornelia away.

Cornelia soon finds out why Aunt Kitty does not want Cornelia in her life. It is not just that Aunt Kitty has very little money and no home of her home. It is also the fact that Aunt Kitty has a job that she loves, one that requires her to face dangerous situations. How can she be a child’s guardian under such circumstances?

Cornelia is shocked when she finds out that Aunt Kitty works as an agent for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. She is an honest to goodness detective who goes after miscreants who break the law, and soon enough Cornelia herself sees how good Aunt Kitty is at her job. Aunt Kitty is given the job of proving that a man has killed his wife so that he might marry his lover. Aunt Kitty plays the part of a fortune teller, and Cornelia helps her in her task by pretending to be her servant. Between then they manage to convince the mistress to spill the beans and tell the truth about what her beloved has done.

The detectives at the Pinkerton Detective Agency are very impressed with Cornelia’s performance and she is asked to help out with other cases, playing parts as needed to support her aunt. It would seem that though they are not blood relatives, Cornelia and Aunt Kitty are similar and they are well matched. Though she is proud of their successes, Cornelia still worries that her aunt is going to send her to an orphanage. She also worries about some friends of hers who used to be her neighbors when she lived in New York. Cornelia’s friend Jemma is unhappy and Cornelia decides that she will do everything she can to help her friend.  Cornelia never imagines that Jemma has information that Cornelia would love to know about, information about Cornelia’s family that will explain a great deal.

This wonderful, often deliciously funny, book takes readers on a thrilling series of adventures. In addition, it also gives readers a sense of what the Underground Railroad was, is shows them what life in the United States was like in the years before the Civil War broke out, and readers will discover how valuable the detectives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were to the nation.  Fact and fiction are combined seamlessly throughout the book, and at the back of the book readers can find out which of the characters that they met on the pages were real people.