Starting with a kinetic chase through the crowded, threatening streets of 19th century Old Town Edinburgh this story gripped me by the throat and would not let go until I had finished. You are immediately made aware that the brave main protagonist, Zinnie, will confront any danger, whether it be the authorities who would break up her “family” or cruel, underworld, criminal Bartholemew Talbot, in order to protect her younger “sisters”, Sadie and Nell. Zinnie has escaped the horrors of an orphanage and despite her tender years will fiercely defend anyone in her care from a similar fate.
The juxtaposition of Old Town Edinburgh with its twisting, dangerous alleyways and criminal underbelly and the elegant, chandelier-strewn mansions of New Town only half-a-mile away is a recurring theme in the story. Zinnie begins to move between the two extremes as she finds herself in the employ of a young medical student who relies on her knowledge of the streets for information. He is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle! Through him Zinnie enters the sumptuous home of wealthy Lady Sarah Montague, a widow who defies convention by travelling on expeditions to far flung corners of the world and who becomes an admirer of Zinnie’s indefatigable spirit.
The precisely-plotted mystery features ghostly apparitions, corpses appearing in the medical school with their ears removed, the sinister MacDuff who plans to open the eponymous House of Hidden Wonders on George Street and a varied cast of street villains. The real location of Mary King’s Close, the dark, disease-ridden ruins of former tenements which are abandoned by all but ghosts and beggars, are so powerfully described that you find yourself hunched and shivering as you read these passages. In contrast, the kindness and care offered by Sophia Jex-Blake, the first female to open a medical practice in Scotland casts a ray of hope over the story.
I don’t want to reveal any more details about the plot for fear of giving away any spoilers, but I was utterly enthralled from beginning to end. I think this book would be perfect for children in the summer term of Year 6 at primary school, or Year 7 at secondary school, as I know that many KS3 reading lists feature the Sherlock Holmes titles. The author, Sharon Gosling, has conjured a story which is thoroughly entertaining in its own right and provides an excellent precursor to the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, giving a glimpse into his future career and showing a model for the Baker Street Irregulars often employed by his pipe-smoking detective. Finally I loved the subtle reflection here on the true meaning of family and the spotlight on strong females who were unafraid to break the conventions of their age.
I received an e_ARC of this book from #NetGalley and Little Tiger UK in exchange for an honest review.