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the case of the missing marquess

30 april 2021

Enola Holmes is Sherlock's smarter sister, as people with Netflix probably know. Being me, I found it easier to start reading Enola's adventures once I'd heard of her.

Nancy Springer's first Enola Holmes mystery is The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006), recently re-issued by Puffin in a TV-tie-in edition. As our story begins, Enola, 14 years old, lives a somewhat feral life on the estate that had belonged to her late father. Her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock never visit and show no interest in Ferndell Hall until their mother suddenly vanishes. Mycroft seems apathetic about his mother's fate, and atypically for him, Sherlock's efforts are limited to checking the railway stations and ferries, or coordinating efforts with local constabularies. It seems the only person who can find the missing Mum is Enola herself.

The missing marquess of the title is a likely lad, a bit younger than Enola and heir to a dukedom, who goes by the appealing nickname "Tewky." On her way to find Mum, Enola learns that Tewky has in turn disappeared from his estate, and she soon pieces together that the young nobleman, irritated at still having to dress in a Fauntleroy outfit, has run off to go to sea before the mast.

Enola does good detective work in elucidating the disappearance, but she finds Tewky pretty much by accident. Some exciting chase scenes ensue and then she restores Tewky to the family fold by dropping him off at Scotland Yard.

So the central case is not of riveting interest. The novel is really more about a girl trying to connect with a Victorian mother who has raised her in an unconventional way, and starting to appreciate the facets of her mother's life that led her to that defiant course – and then led her to vanish.

The Case of the Missing Marquess is about girls' body image and women's dress; it's about the intersection of gender and class; it's about patriarchy; it's about rebellion against prudishness and propriety. This seems like a heady mix for a cozy children's detective story. But it's another way of saying that Springer brings 21st-century issues alive in the persona of a Victorian girl – reminding us that today's issues have their roots in Victorian strictures and Victorian resistance.

Disguise that blurs the edges of gender, class, and age is at the heart of the action in Missing Marquess. Enola can't just cycle away from the Holmes estate in her knickerbockers. To make her escape, she confronts one of her greatest apprehensions. Since she's now presumptively parentless, her guardian Mycroft wants to send Enola to a boarding school. A boarding school means corsets, and corsets lead to bustles and "dress-enhancers" and all kinds of other shackles of misogyny. Why not turn the system against itself? Enola can stuff one of her mother's spare corsets – front and back, at least – with all the necessities for her journey, and slip away disguised as the adult woman she isn't quite yet.

This is a very smart move, not only on Enola's part but on Springer's: Enola's transformation drives the action but also transgresses against oppressiveness from the inside while displacing that transgression onto the long-ago. Springer's novel is addressed to multiple audiences: young kids reading well above their "age level," as kids inevitably will; teens and even college students with a critical sense, and adults who appreciate an energetic postmodern historical novel.

That said, the central story turns out to be untwisty, as I mentioned, and we sense that much of The Case of the Missing Marquess is devoted to setting up the series ahead. Which I need to find and read more of.

Springer, Nancy. The Case of the Missing Marquess. 2006. New York: Puffin [Penguin Random House], 2020. [An Enola Holmes Mystery] PZ 7 .S76843Cas