The Case of the Girl in Grey by Jordan Stratford; ill. Kelly Murphy

The Case of the Girl in Grey (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency No. 2) by Jordan Stratford and illustrated by Kelly Murphy – Red Cedar fiction nominee 2017/2018 – is a middle grade mystery, a story of utterly opposite sisters, and above all, about the friendships formed between remarkable girls.

As in The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency No. 1), Stratford takes historical luminaries and changes their timelines, though not their characteristic traits, to bring them together. Having successfully solved one case, Mary (as in Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, better known as Mary Shelley) and Ada (Augusta Ada Byron, better known as Ada Lovelace) find that their secret detective agency is known by half of London, and that their younger sisters are determined to join, whether Ada and Mary want them to or not.

The cast:

  • Mary (14 years old)
  • Ada (11, nearly 12)
  • Allegra, Ada’s half-sister (9 years old)
  • Jane, Mary’s step-sister (12 years old)
  • Charles Dickins, who works at a boot-polish factory
  • Peebs, aka Percy Bysshe Shelley, the girls’ tutor
  • Ada’s servants: Mr Franklin, the butler; Anna Cumberland, the maid; Cook. (Ada doesn’t remember Cook’s name.)
  • Mrs. Mary Somerville, the smartest person in the world, and the woman for whom the word “scientist” was invented, according to Ada. Approximately 45 years old.
  • Miss Lizzie Earnshaw, Mary Somerville’s younger cousin. Age unknown, perhaps 16-18
  • The girl in grey. A ghost? Pale of skin and dress, with auburn hair.

The case:

Mary Somerville has come to the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency seeking a clandestine investigation. She does not trust the fiance Lizzie Earnshaw’s guardian has chosen for her. Lizzie also has private reservations, and the investigation isn’t clandestine in the least.

Meanwhile, en route to Ada’s house for her daily lessons, the carriage nearly has an accident and Mary spies a ghost girl.

Mary was alarmed. “Was it the horses? Were you hurt?”

“No,” came the reply. “It wasn’t the horses. I’m just not all right.”

“Please do come back to the carriage. Out of the rain. You’re soaked through. We can take you home.”

“I’m not all right,” said the girl in grey. “And I’m not going home.” With that, she turned an even whiter shade of pale and fled into the trees alongside the path, quick as a bird. (p. 16)

Allegra reminds me of Ripley (Lumberjanes), all energy and leaping about and cartwheels, always diving into anything physical at the slightest opportunity. Jane is, or tries to be, proper; she reads *gag* Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage and tries to keep the other girls in line. Ada and Mary have the same distinct traits and strengths that distinguished them in the first book. In this second adventure, the two of them have grown distinctly more alike. Mary has developed a part of Ada’s critical, logical, inquiring mind and her insistent demand for answers to her questions. Ada is developing more awareness of others and their emotions, empathy, and social skills. It is particularly lovely to see Mary encouraging Ada’s attempts to think of the people around her (remembering their names, for instance). Mary, Ada, Jane, and Allegra are strikingly different and, as annoying as they find each other at times, none of their traits and priorities are devalued textually (by the author). At the same time, all of them have room to grow – which they do. There is a particularly lovely passage involving Jane which demands to be read aloud:

“I’ll not tolerate your wearisome tone, girl. What do you know of such complexities? We have standards to maintain, and you young moderns will see them overthrown, I have no doubt.” He sighed heavily.

“I hope we will set better standards, sir. I hope we will see things more clearly.”

The old man waved his hand, as if shooing a bothersome fly. And so Jane too sighed heavily and took her leave.

He was silent for a moment before conceding. “Still, it is a new century.”

“It is, sir,” said Jane. “It has been for the last twenty-six years.” (p. 200)

I was half-expecting Lizzie to be a flat damsel in distress, as tends to happen in mystery series. Much to my delight, she isn’t. Lizzie is more willing to bend to Society’s norms and expectations than Ada and Mary are, but she is also drawn as an intelligent young woman who enjoys the company of her new friends. Lizzie is business-savvy and capable of critical, independent thought. The development of Ada and Lizzie’s mutual esteem is particularly pleasing: Ada, who is unquestionably an awkward, childish genius, likes and respects Lizzie. Meanwhile, Lizzie, who in a contemporary novel would be the popular, wealthy girl at school, is pleased to hear that she and Ada are alike in certain matters.

It isn’t just our middle grade heroines who utilize their brainpower and save the day. Mary, Ada, Allegra, and Jane have a remarkable set of adults in the background who are presented as complex beings. Most prominent in this plot are scientist Mary Somerville and Mrs. Godwin (Mary’s step-mother, Jane’s mother), “the most accomplished publisher of children’s literature in all of London” (p. 73); see also a brief and eerie scene with Dr. Polidori, who IRL wrote The Vampyre, the first vampire story in English.

The Case of the Girl in Grey, though more melodramatic than The Case of the Missing Moonstone, is a book I, at least, read and reread with enthusiasm. Fencing scholars will be delighted to catch a passing mention of swordmasters Agrippa and Capo Ferro (<3), and ongoing readers of the series will note the naming of someone I suspect will prove to be the mastermind and nemesis of our detectives.