The 10 book series of Murder Most Unladylike, featuring schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, has come to an end, and this looks like the start of a new series with May Wong anxious to follow in her big sister’s footsteps. The setting is December 1940, during World War II, and 10 year-old May (almost 11) is unable to travel back to Hong Kong, but she can go to Deepdean School with her sister, Rose, who is 12. Hazel, who at 19 seems very old to May, has left the school where she had become famous, and is working as a real spy, but takes the girls out regularly. While looking for sweets in Hazel’s handbag May finds a note, inviting Hazel to The Ministry, and she decides to run away and go to the appointment. On the doorstep she meets Eric, almost 13, with dark skin and dusty, curly hair, and they set off to track down an enemy spy. Pretending to be evacuees, which is quite easy in the chaos of war, they are taken to Elysium Hall, and stay in a strange household, including an Irish girl, Fionnuala, just a bit older than May, who wants to be an actress and likes to pretend she’s the fictional detective Nancy Drew. They start off on the wrong foot, but learn to work together to find out what is going on. The spy hunt turns into a murder, and then there is another death, and all the various skills the children have are used to identify the spy and unmask the murderer.
It is a serious story, and there is always danger in wartime, but there are many ways to use a gas mask case, and a lot of fun to be had from the resourcefulness of all the children. Eric’s family is German, and Robin Stevens has him explain guiltily that he joined a Hitler Youth group, and that it took time for many Germans to realise that all was not well: as in most war situations, there was good and bad behaviour on both sides, and that’s a good point to make.
The joke name for the famous Special Operations Executive, brave people who made a big difference in the war, was indeed the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Activity, and Robin Stevens delights in using that idea for this next series. We can look forward to more stories as enjoyable as this, as Fionnuala prepares to join May at Deepdean, and all 3 become the next generation of the Detective Society: for who would suspect children of being investigators?