Inquisitive and observant, Dora dreams of escaping her aristocratic country life to solve mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes. So when she learns that the legendary detective might be her biological father, Dora jumps on the opportunity to travel to London and enlist his help in solving the mystery of her cousin’s ransomed love letters. But Dora arrives in London to devastating news: Sherlock Holmes is dead. Her dreams dashed, Dora is left to rely on her wits–and the assistance of an attractive yet enigmatic young detective–to save her cousin’s reputation and help rescue a kidnapped heiress along the way.
Prior to this year, I had never read a book about a plucky female heroine who bucks her Victorian Age traditions and tries to solve mysteries on her own. But that’s been rectified, first with A Spy in the House, and then Wrapped, and now Secret Letters. While there are definite similarities between the three books, the mysteries and characters were all different enough that I wasn’t nitpicking those likenesses or really comparing the three. If you’re looking for historical accuracy in terms of girls not dressing as boys or going out without a chaperon, thenSecret Letters is probably your best bet, although there were still some moments where I needed to suspend my disbelief.
Secret Letters tells the story of Dora, who has found out that she’s actually the daughter of the famous Sherlock Holmes. When her cousin’s secret love letters to a past music tutor turn up missing and the focus of a blackmail scheme, Dora travels with Adelaide to London to seek out the expertise of said famous detective, but when circumstances conspire to keep them from meeting him, they fall in with another detective and his handsome assistant, Peter Cartwright. When it becomes apparent that Adelaide’s letters are also tied up in the mystery of a missing heiress, Cartwright decides to have Dora go undercover as a scullery maid in an earl’s home to suss out the truth. And that’s the bit that required me to suspend my disbelief a bit, because Dora has been raised as a proper lady (even though she notices far too much for said propriety), and working as a scullery maid could damage her reputation beyond repair. But Dora is a willing participant in this plan, because she fancies herself a bit of an amateur detective, and also because she wants to retrieve Adelaide’s letters (plus, you know, Peter kind of showed her up and she wants to get a bit of her own back).
I couldn’t help but love Dora. She is inquisitive, intelligent, and willing to break away from tradition a bit in terms of her actions. She also has a kind heart, although she can be kind of thoughtlessly cruel, and even more cruel when she means to be. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she’s at the earl’s home pretending to be a scullery maid, for she gets into some tight spots and actually does some things that could have gotten her cover blown. But this is where her creativity and cleverness shine through, because she figures out ways to get the information she needs, even if she can’t put two and two together right away. And anyone who winds up dancing on a bartop and singing bawdy songs at the top of her lungs can’t be all bad, right?
There is a bit of romance in the book between Dora and Peter, but it was well-paced and actually more of an antagonistic-type relationship, which I’m not always a fan of but worked well here, mostly because Dora is just so headstrong. I liked watching them work together and the ways they tried to figure each other out. They both had incredible wit and charm, and made me laugh several times over. Plus there are hints that Peter has had to deal with some type of tragedy, and while you do find out what it is at the end, he played the whole “wounded hero trying to hide his pain behind a humorous exterior” quite well.
While I enjoyed this book, it wasn’t perfect. The mystery is solid, but I’d guessed the villain about midway through, although not the motivations. And also, the whole deal with Adelaide’s letters is never exactly explained, which, considering that this is the whole reason why Dora initially gets involved, it would have been nice to have some sort of wrap-up with that. There’s also a bit of a Scooby Doo-ish reveal in which the truth comes out, which was a bit over the top for me personally. But Dora’s adventures and the relationship with Peter definitely saved it enough for me to give the book four solid stars.
If you like your historical fiction a bit more historical with less girls dressing as boys and running amok in Victorian England, then this is probably the one for you. You’ll need to suspend your disbelief just a bit, but I think Dora’s spirit will capture any reader enough to get you interested and invested in the book. And the slight romance doesn’t hurt, either. Secret Letters will be released on June 26th, 2012 in North America. If you like plucky young heroines, definitely give it a read!
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.