Enola Holmes is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft. In her second novel, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, things get kind of dark for the 14 year old who is living on her own. London is a dirty and dangerous city, full of destitute and desperate people. Enola is struggling to make a life on her own—thanks to her mother, money isn’t an issue. But she needs to stay under the radar of her older brothers who would force her into a finishing school and a “proper” life. In the meantime, she’s set up an office for “Dr. Ragostin”—London’s first scientific perditorian (finder of lost people)—who is shockingly never available. However, his helpful young assistant does her best to solve mysteries, beginning with the mysterious disappearance of young Lady Cecily.
This novel is a bit darker and more dangerous than I remember The Case of the Missing Marquess being, although it does pick up almost directly where that novel left off. It’s enjoyable to enter the world of Sherlock Holmes from this unique perspective.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The reason Enola is on her own is that she was raised with a certain amount of freedom. She’s unwilling to play the role that her brothers, particularly Mycroft, think she should play. She plays into the expectations of others, knowing they will see women and girls as inferior and irrational. She creates Dr. Ragostin because a scientist absolutely must be a man—no one would trust a female scientist. She also lashes out against the fashions, such as corsets, designed to keep a woman in her place (although she wears one of her own design which serves as armor, a sheath for a dagger, and private storage of valuables). Women with any spirit are considered “hysterical.”
There are euphemisms for rape and prostitution—Mycroft fears Enola’s virtue will be plundered on the streets of London, women of the night are mentioned, etc. These terms are not explained or defined, for Enola doesn’t really know what they mean.
There’s a fairly graphic scene early on where Enola, disguised as a nun as she tends to the poor, is garroted violently, only saved by the whalebone in the stiff high neck of her gown and the intervention of strangers. She’s shattered by this, and her sense of security is destroyed. She thought she was prepared to deal with violence, but none of her plans kept her safe. Later, Lady Cecily is similarly garroted by the same man, although Enola saves her in the nick of time by stabbing her attacker multiple times. She stabs him in the arm and shoulders, wanting to scare him away instead of killing him. It also helps the police track him down.
The streets of London are dangerous and deadly. The criminal element—including possibly Jack the Ripper—lurks around every dark corner.
Poverty and Classism
The poor of London are truly in terrible shape. Enola knows that each cold night will bring more frozen bodies of those who have no shelter—she has seen bodies frozen to the pavement. She tries to help, and does help some individuals stave off death for at least a few more days. Lady Cecily is horrified by the conditions of the poor, and disagrees vehemently, though silently, with her noble father who has little sympathy. She has read Marx and wants to change society. However, in the end, she will go back to her home where she will likely quietly but angrily fulfill her expected role.
Bad People Doing Good Things
There’s a charismatic rabblerouser getting the poor of London worked up, getting them to stand up for their rights and demand better working conditions. Enola agrees with his aims, but he’s using Mesmerism (similar to hypnotism, but it seems to be a little mystical) to get people to agree with him and act on what he says. He may have some good goals, but it turns out that he’s a terrible, terrible human being.
Lady Cecily is called a “proud bitch.” Other than that, everything is pretty tame. Enola occasionally wishes she knew more words to say when she’s very angry.
Enola chooses independence and freedom at the cost of companionship, security, and support. Lady Cecily gives up much, both when she leaves home and when she returns home—her story seems doomed to an unhappy ending. (update: I’m glad to say that Lady Cecily’s story continues in The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan.)
As the title implies, Lady Cecily is left-handed. This is totally unacceptable, and attempts have been made to force her to use her right hand. Her maid goes to lengths to deny that Lady Cecily could possibly be defective enough to favor her left hand. Cecily does use her right hand around her parents and polite society. Her true personality comes out when she is able to use her left hand, though.
Enola communicates with her mother through encrypted messages in newspapers. Intricate disguises and plans are detailed. Sometimes she’s a little slow putting the pieces together, but for the most part, it’s a fun mystery as the reader gets to see the puzzle being solved.
Lady Cecily’s mother cares about her daughter, which allows Enola to get some helpful information. However, she’s also somewhat distracted by her many other children. Lady Cecily’s father seems to clearly see her only as a pawn in the marriage market.
Enola starts having some trouble being alone. She misses her mother, and is hurt when she asks her mother for help and receives no answer. She loves and admires her brother Sherlock, but knows she can’t trust him not to send her off to finishing school. Mycroft is utterly unworthy of trust and seems markedly unconcerned about the fate of his little sister. Enola sees Watson as fatherly. She’s very much an outsider, unable to have the family and friends she craves because she can trust no one.
This is the start of my summer Enola Holmes binge, and I really enjoyed it. Enola is, overall, a wonderful narrator, even if she does occasionally seem a bit short-sighted. This novel is darker than the first, with many details about the poverty and pollution that plagued the streets of London in 1889. It ends on a bittersweet note, with problems solved, but not quite in a happy way. I’d recommend it for readers 10 and up as long as they can handle the dark themes. Although it’s a female protagonist, I think many boys would enjoy it as well.
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer
Published in 2007 by Philomel Books
Second in a series, after The Case of the Missing Marquess
Borrowed from my daughter’s middle school library thanks to their wonderful summer borrowing program