If you enjoy detective/mystery stories with a group of young, intrepid heroes, played out in a beautifully imagined historical setting then these are the books for you! A four novel series, set in London in 1909, featuring Sophie, Billy, Lil and Joe and a host of friends and dastardly villains.
Book 1 The Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
You are cordially invited to attend the “Grand Opening” of Sinclair’s Department Store….
Welcome to Edwardian London, a time of great change. Fabulously wealthy Edward Sinclair (known by his staff as The Captain) has arrived from America to open a huge department store in Piccadilly, described as looking like “a ship: as glittering and luxurious as an ocean liner ready to carry its customers proudly on a journey to an exotic new land.” The author, Katherine Woodfine, gives such incredibly detailed descriptions of the store that you can almost smell the exotic scents and hear the swish of silk and the chink of fine crystal glasses filled with bubbling champagne, as you are transported through the departments!
We meet one of the main characters, orphaned Sophie Taylor on the first page as she hangs onto the leather strap of a London omnibus before descending into the melee of Piccadilly Circus on her way to work at Sinclair’s. She literally trips over apprentice porter Billy Parker as she enters the building; he is engrossed in the latest edition of the adventures of Montgomery Baxter, his favourite fictional detective. Later that morning, Billy discovers a badly injured teenager named Jack in the stables. It transpires that Jack is on the run from an East End criminal gang: The Baron’s Boys. Sophie then encounters Lilian Rose, an aspiring actress who is earning money as a “living mannequin”, modelling the expensive designer gowns in the Ladies Clothing Department, whilst waiting for her acting career to take off.
The four new friends are quickly thrown into a mystery that they must solve when a collection of hugely expensive, jewelled objects are stolen from the Sinclair’s Exhibition Hall where they have been displayed prior to the grand opening ceremony of the store. Sophie feels that her already impoverished life is being taken from her, piece by piece, when she is framed for the theft. Fortunately, her friends will not allow her to be destroyed, and together they pool their ingenuity to try to track down the real villain.
This book is quite astonishing in the pace of the plot, the fine writing and the character development of its four teenage protagonists. The Edwardian setting is incredibly interesting since this is a period rarely covered in school history lessons. I feel that it is an essential book for any school library, likely to be enjoyed by everyone from Year 3 or 4 and above. When you finish, you will no doubt be ready to read…
Book 2: The Jewelled Moth by Katherine Woodfine
This second Sinclair’s Mystery again features the four friends, Sophie, Billy, Lil and Joe, all employed at Sinclair’s Department store. Billy is now an apprentice clerk in Mr Sinclair’s office, reporting directly to Miss Atwood, the formidable private secretary. Joe has his dream job working in the stables, using his natural affinity with animals to look after the delivery horses that are required to deliver goods from Sinclair’s to customers all over London. Sophie has been reinstated in the Millinery Department and Lil spends her days modelling lavish designer gowns and her evenings performing on the London stage.
Whilst the first book in the series only touched on the less glamorous side of Edwardian London, here the action dashes between the elegant opulence of the wealthy West End and the dark, cramped and dangerous East End Docklands area of Limehouse where criminal enterprises controlled by the shadowy figure of “The Baron” flourish. The contrast between the grandeur of Sinclair’s Department Store and the small shop owned by the Lim family in the China Town region of Limehouse is a fascinating aspect of this book.
I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone but I strongly encourage you to read this novel and uncover the connections between the London debutante season, Mei’s family history and the fabulous “Moonbeam Diamond”, a brooch known as “The Jewelled Moth” and the shadowy, mysterious Lord Beaucastle. You will be plunged into an exciting plot, meet engaging characters, dastardly villains and will want to test your detective skills to try to solve the crime before the final conclusion. I highly recommend this story to anyone aged 8 and over. Next lookout for…
Book 3: The Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine
In the third Sinclair’s Mystery we are reunited with the four young detective friends, Sophie, Lil, Billy and Joe. Lil is now a rising star on the London stage and is sometimes finding it hard to combine this with her detective duties on the cases that are brought to her and Sophie at Sinclair’s Department Store. As the book opens we discover that Sophie is still haunted by “The Baron” and his mysterious connection to her dead parents, although her friends feel that he has left London forever.
Leonora Fitzgerald is a student at prestigious Spencer Institute of Fine Art where she is singled out by Professor Jarvis, legendary both for his sarcastic criticism and his ability to launch a young artist’s career. Leonora has suffered from a childhood illness which meant that she was confined to bed for many months and left her with the need to walk with a crutch. She therefore does not conform to the expectation of Edwardian times that girls from wealthy families were destined to marry well and produce families. This leaves her lacking in self-confidence and feeling lonely and “apart” from the other students. She is drawn out of her shell by Jack Rose (Lil’s brother who has dropped out of Oxford to study art). I enjoyed this aspect of the book, a subtle lesson in empathy for those who are different, showing the reader that everyone should be valued.
Randolf Lyle is one of the most important collectors of fine art in London, and is curating an art exhibition which will be staged at the Exhibition Hall in Sinclair’s Department Store, he requires volunteers from the art college to assist with this. One of the paintings on display is “The Green Dragon” dating from 1455 and one of a sequence of dragon paintings which are not just extremely valuable but may hold some other special significance.
These elements are drawn together into a pacey adventure combining art theft, forgery and a secret society of criminals known as the Fraternitas Draconum. What dreadful plan are they working on? Who is their leader? And can Sophie, Lil, Billy, Joe and their new friends thwart their plot? Get your hands on a copy of this book to find out! Then read the final book in the series…
The Midnight Peacock by Katherine Woodfine
In the final installment of the series Sophie and Lil are running “Taylor & Rose” a fashionable detective agency with an office provided for them on the first floor of Sinclair’s Department Store. Although they realise that setting up an in-house detective agency is probably just another of Mr Sinclair’s publicity stunts, they are determined to do a professional job and build careers for themselves as crime-solvers.
The year 1909 is drawing to a close, Sophie, Lil and Lil’s brother Jack have been invited to spend Christmas with Leonora’s family at Winter Hall. Meanwhile Mr Sinclair is planning to welcome 1910 with a spectacular fireworks display and New Year’s Eve ball for all of London’s High Society at Sinclair’s Department Store.
In her grand country home Leonora’s maid, Tilly, suspects that something sinister is happening in the ancient East Wing. She explains the curious night-time noises and lights to the visiting young detectives, who are determined to investigate. Meanwhile back in London, Billy and Joe are trying to track down the owners of Lindwurm Enterprises who, under cover of darkness, are loading crates into the offices opposite Sinclair’s. They follow the trail to a factory near Woolwich where they learn that a dangerous chemical that “sets things on fire and makes them burn” is being manufactured.
What is the connection between the secret passages at Winter Hall, the late-night deliveries in Piccadilly, a sinister, international criminal organisation and the plans for a magnificent New Year’s Eve party? Read this book, it will have you turning pages at record pace to find out!
In summary, did I mention that Katherine Woodfine writes beautifully. Her descriptions of place are so vivid that you really do feel that you are gliding through the Ladies Millinery Department or dodging blood-thirsty killers in the sordid alleys of the old East End. Her characters are so realistically written that you’d just want to sit down for tea and buns with them to help decode their latest clues, and all have believable and satisfying story arcs. On top of that, this series has the most gorgeous cover designs imaginable – they are irresistible and I recommend this charming series to everyone of 8 and over.
If you love this series as much as I did, they why not follow Sophie and Lil’s further adventures in a new series of books…
Taylor & Rose Secret Agents by Katherine Woodfine