I thought Michaela MacColl's debut book, Prisoners in the Palace, was a great read. I loved learning about the young Queen Victoria, and the palace intrigue she concocted (based on true events!) was fascinating and fun.
MacColl takes a bit of a different tack with Nobody's Secret, though it's still historical YA. This time, her protagonist is Emily Dickinson, and her setting is Amherst, Massachusetts. Fifteen year old Emily is laying out in the field by her home, trying to coax a bee to land on her nose, when she notices that she's being observed by a young man. They strike up a conversation (a bit of a flirtation, really), but he leaves before she can learn his true name. Instead, she knows him simply as Mr. Nobody, as he introduced himself to her.
This is a terrific meet-cute, but if you've read the back cover, you know this is no romantic comedy. Not long after Emily's meeting with Mr. Nobody, he's found dead, face-down in a pond on the Dickinson property. The constable and the coroner and everyone else officially involved with the investigation all want to write it off as an accidental drowning, but Emily knows something is off. She's determined to learn the truth and get justice for her friend.
Famous historical figures solving crimes are all the rage in the adult fiction world, and have been for a while. I don't know of as many in the YA world, but I admit I do rather like the gimmick, particularly if the person in question is one that already interests me. Emily Dickinson, though, has never held barrels of fascination for me. The poets I like are few and far between, and Miss Dickinson is not one of them. Still, I always enjoy a good historical mystery, particularly when it's headed by an independent young teenager.
Alas, the mystery itself is not a terribly good one. It's pretty pedestrian, actually, with a rather small roster of suspects and zero red herrings (meaning there's no real chance for the reader to guess wrong). So as a whodunnit, it's not particularly satisfying. As a character study, though, it's more successful. Through MacColl's story, we learn about Emily's life: she was consumptive, she hated doing the baking and washing (which took ages), her mother was frugal to a fault, she had a fascination with bees, and so on. As she is mostly known for two things - her poetry and her seclusion - all these details are a welcome insight into her character.
As to the central conceit - Emily Dickinson as amateur sleuth - it makes sense that Emily would be one to investigate a murder that everyone else considered closed, given her reputation for oddness.
If you're looking for a good mystery, I'd probably give this a pass, but for readers interested in Emily Dickinson and her poetry, this would certainly be of interest. Each chapter is titled with a couple lines of her poems, and the way MacColl threads the "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" poem throughout the novel - title included - is clever. For many, Dickinson's poetry is accessible and understandable where others' is dense and confusing, so I can certainly see this circulating among her fans.
Review copy received from the publisher. Nobody's Secret will be available March 1.