Continuing my summer binge of Enola Holmes, next we get the third novel, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets. Dr. Watson, who Enola views from a distance as a father figure, has gone missing. No one has any clues. Enola disguises herself and befriends Mrs. Watson, gaining entrance to the Watson residence. There she sees the titular bizarre bouquet and realizes that it’s a message sent with the language of flowers—something that of course her brothers have overlooked—and it bodes ill.
This is the third novel in the series, following The Case of the Missing Marquess and The Case of the Left-Handed Lady. Each one follows the other almost immediately. Reading them back to back in order, while not strictly necessary, lets you see the metaplot of Enola’s story.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sexism and Beauty
Sexism leads off every Enola Holmes review. The theme in this book is how easy it is to have someone—particularly a woman—committed to an insane asylum. In fact, if Enola had a man in charge of her, she could have been committed for sitting down to speak to a grimy urchin on the street. But again, being a woman allows her access and knowledge that her brothers don’t have.
Nearly caught by Sherlock in the previous book, Enola disguises herself in a way he would never expect—she makes herself beautiful. With expert application of makeup, a luxurious head of hair thanks to a wig, and some other cosmetic changes, Enola is in fact traditionally beautiful. She learns that men are both easier to manipulate, and more forward and annoying. She learns that women are harder to deal with in many ways, less likely to open up to a pretty girl than a plain one.
Enola discovers that her secret identity is still safe—Dr. Watson didn’t even notice her name when he met her as the secretary to Dr. Ragostin. As a young woman, she was beneath his notice. Sherlock doesn’t recognize her disguise when he sees her at the Watson home because a pretty young noble woman isn’t worth his thought.
Because she is affectionate toward Dr. Watson, Enola is driven to find him, despite the dangers to herself. She’s still hurt by her mother ignoring her plea for help, but eventually forgives her when she sees what anger among family members can do. Enola realizes one of her brothers is trying to meet with her and is shocked to realize it’s Mycroft instead of Sherlock—Mycroft has picked up on the flower theme in her communication with their mother, which shows more observation than the famous detective. Both brothers send a message acknowledging that Enola found Dr. Watson when they could not. She’s very touched by this.
In our villain we have an example of sibling love that goes beyond murder, but is also tainted with the inability to forgive.
The book opens with Dr. Watson trapped in an insane asylum. They won’t believe that he is who he says he is, and there’s no way for him to leave. It’s clear that once money exchanges hands, the “patient” is in there for good, unless someone rescues them. Enola muses throughout the novel on how easy it is to be committed to an asylum—all it takes is a man with money and a doctor’s signature. It’s an easy and acceptable way to get rid of an inconvenient wife since divorce is scandalous.
Our villain is disfigured, because when she was a baby, a rat ate off her nose and lips. Life has made her rather unhinged, and her sister’s husband had her committed. When her sister felt guilty and came to get her out, our villain murdered the husband. Dr. Watson signed the papers to have her committed, so in vengeance, she has Dr. Watson committed under the dead husband’s name.
Although Enola has never dressed as a boy and does not wish to, she does realize that trousers would frequently be much more convenient than her skirts. The villain sometimes dresses as a man, frequently taking the role of the brother-in-law she murdered. While her sister is freaked out by her desire to dress as a man, Enola thinks that the villain makes a much more satisfactory man than woman, and the sister is narrow-minded to think otherwise.
Enola is very classist, to the point of typically assuming that the things the lower classes say to her are just so much nonsense. I’m hoping she will soon realize her mistake, as often the reader is well aware that it’s not nonsense if only Enola would actually listen. She does, however, understand how the classes work, and knows she’s safer on the streets if she looks like she’s lower class. She also uses disguises of different classes to gain access to different places.
As is typical, coded messages play a central role. Toward the end, there’s a coded message that isn’t decrypted for the reader immediately. Enola as the narrator asks the reader to wait until she reveals the message, even though certainly we could figure out the coded message. I wonder how many young readers who hadn’t before bothered to play with the encryptions took the time to figure that one out? It’s a fun way to draw the reader in a little deeper.
Enola calls the boys who flirt with her prettily disguised self “jackasses.”
More than in the previous novel, I was aware of the vocabulary being a bit challenging. Context will be sufficient for most readers, but a few may seek out a dictionary.
While tackling some heavy issues like the societal construction of beauty, the treatment of women, and the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill, overall this is a lighter adventure/mystery story. It’s not quite as creepy dark as The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, while still not making light of the desperate plight of London’s poor. You probably don’t have to read these in order, but I’d recommend it if possible. So, like the others, this is suitable for precocious readers 10 and up.
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets by Nancy Springer
Published in 2008 by Philomel Books
Third in a series, after The Case of the Missing Marquess and The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
Borrowed from my daughter’s middle school library thanks to their wonderful summer borrowing program