The Case of the Missing Moonstone, by Jordan Stratford, is the first case for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, the detectives of which are Mary Godwin and Ada Byron – better known to posterity as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron, mathematical genius, and the world’s first computer programmer.
As the book begins, the neglected Ada is watching as her governess is leaving her for the last time. At 11, she’s considered too old for a governess, and instead is to be tutored by the mysterious Mr Snagsby (known as Peebs because of the PBS initials on his luggage) along with 14-year-old Mary.
Ada isn’t happy about the situation. She doesn’t want a tutor, doesn’t want Mary, doesn’t want anything to do with anyone. From a modern perspective, you’d put her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – she’s happier with mathematics and inventions (like the Peebs cannon) than with people, and really struggles to pick up on social cues.
Mary understands this, and slowly she manages to break down Ada’s barriers – by accepting Ada on her own terms – and the two form an unlikely friendship.
When Ada comes up with the idea of forming a detective agency, to use her brain to put clever criminals in the papers (“in prison,” corrects Mary) the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s feminist philosopher mother, is born.
The case is fun, exciting, and culminates in the traditional chase across London (yes, the cover gives away the mode of transport) but it’s the characters that really carry this book. Ada is utterly delightful, Mary the friend you always wish you had, Peebs mysterious and enigmatic, and Charles the boot-polish labeller a splendid sidekick.
Most of all, the charm of the book lies in the relationship between Ada and Mary.
From a historical perspective, this is a load of nonsense, of course. The introduction admits right away that a great many liberties have been taken with the timeline! For a start, Mary was 18 years older than Ada, not three. Mary was actually part of Ada’s father Byron’s circle (it was with Percy Shelley, Byron and Polidori at Lake Geneva in 1816 that Mary came up with the idea for her novel Frankenstein) – she’s in the wrong generation.
There are plenty of historical notes at the back, and I’m fortunate in that my partner Sandra is well-read on the subject of Byron and his family. In fact, just yesterday we went on a trip to Hucknall and Newstead Abbey on one of our regular Byronic pilgrimages.
Ada never knew her father, and her mother tried to keep his influence completely out of her life, but she’s buried with him in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Hucknall. (Sandra gave me the story as we walked around the church.)
The ending of the book nearly broke Sandra’s brain, though. Spoilers ahead – although not for the plot of this book, but for the setup for the next case.
Once the case is wrapped up, Ada’s nine-year-old half-sister Allegra turns up. And so does Mary’s 14-year-old step-sister Jane.
But wait. Mary Godwin’s step-sister Jane (full name Clara Mary Jane Clairmont, later in life usually known as Claire Clairmont) had an affair with Lord Byron. And bore him a daughter. Called Allegra.
14-year-old Jane is the mother of nine-year-old Allegra.
I think we’ve damaged the timelines irreparably, Captain! Ye cannae change the laws of temporal physics!
All historical quibbling apart, this is a great book packed with brilliant characters. The next book, The Case of the Girl in Grey is right at the top of my wishlist.