The Case of the Missing Marquess (An Enola Holmes Mystery)

by Nancy Springer

Scholastic, 2006

224 pages

I’m pretty ambivalent about books that amend the work of dead authors. Some – like the annotations and new stories released by the Tolkien estate – find their way onto my bookshelf. But I tend to give a wide berth to anything that smacks of coattail-riding or disrespect for an author’s legacy or creative process: I still won’t even touch a copy of Go Set a Watchman.

For that reason, I avoided Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series for years, even though several of my smartest bibliophile friends highly recommended it. The whole “what if?” concept (in this case, “What if Sherlock Holmes had a much younger, crime-solving sister?”) seemed particularly coattail-related to me. A couple of months ago, however, my daughter and I were looking for a new bedtime book, and she wanted a mystery. She didn’t want to read Flavia deLuce (still working on that one), so I sighed and shrugged and suggested Enola Holmes.

She loved the idea, and now I’m thankful she did. I still cringe a little at the premise, but I have to give Springer credit: The Case of the Missing Marquess is funny, engaging, provocative, and inspiring.

Enola Holmes lives with her titled mother and the family servants at Ferndell Hall, the Holmes family country estate. Enola’s father died 10 years before, and her much-older brothers Mycroft and Sherlock have been estranged from their mother ever since. In their absence, Lady Holmes has raised Enola according to her own progressive ideals, without governesses, corsets, deportment lessons, or a host of other restrictive nineteenth-century conventions.

But on Enola’s fourteenth birthday, Lady Holmes suddenly disappears, and the Holmes brothers return to Ferndell Hall to take charge. Enola wants to help find her mother and build a relationship with her brothers, but their primary concern is shipping their little sister off to boarding school to become a proper gentlewoman.

So Enola follows in her mother’s footsteps and runs away – in her case, to London. On the way, she gets involved in yet another disappearance: that of a young lord from a nearby town (the missing marquess of the title). She solves the case before her famous brothers are barely aware of what’s happening and, after returning the marquess to his family, settles into a new life in London. As the story closes, we see her fulfilled and happy, gathering new clues to her mother’s whereabouts.

There is so much to like about Enola. She’s smart, courageous, persistent, and deeply compassionate. The core of inspiration for me, however, is in her attitude toward her own burgeoning womanhood. In an age when femininity was equated with weakness, hysteria, and submission, Enola makes it about strength, cleverness, and subversion.

Knowing that she can’t move about in public without wearing socially acceptable clothing, she finds the loosest corset she can and wears it as body armor. She pulls the padding out of her bustle and other “dress improvers” and stuffs them with money, food, and other supplies she needs to survive on her own. She turns the very items meant to keep her subjugated into the keys to her freedom.

More deeply, she realizes that her sex and her temperament give her access to places – both physical and mental – her brothers will never go. Nor does she see her sphere as inferior to her brothers’. Instead, she resolves to make it a place of power, one where she can move about as she pleases without detection, precisely because her brothers would not deign to recognize its importance.

When we look at history, we so often focus on the people who broke out of their assigned spheres. They are, after all, the most visible individuals. But history has also been shaped by people who remade their spheres from the inside: cloistered women holding clandestine book clubs, corseted mothers insisting on “rational dress” for their daughters, slave mistresses defying their husbands’ wishes and teaching their slaves to read. Their contributions are no less legitimate for being less dramatic or visible. Enola is cast from that mold – and I am truly looking forward to reading the rest of her story.

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