REVIEW: The Enola Holmes Mysteries

Enola Holmes books

Ahead of the premiere of the Netflix film adaptation, Enola Holmes, I decided to explore the source material by reading book series that inspired it.

The Enola Holmes Mysteries was written by Nancy Springer and the series is comprised of the following six novels:

  • The Case of the Missing Marquess
  • The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
  • The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets
  • The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan
  • The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
  • The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye

Enola Holmes 1The series begins on the morning of Enola Holmes’ fourteenth birthday when her mother, Eudoria Vernet Holmes, chooses to disappear, leaving an enigmatic coded message to her only daughter. With the news of their mother’s mysterious disappearance, Enola’s two older brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, arrive to investigate and they meet their younger sister for the first time in ten years. While Sherlock puzzles over his mother’s absence and gets reacquainted with his sister, Mycroft is determined to make a “proper lady” of Enola by sending her off to boarding school to prepare her for a suitable marriage.

As expected, the headstrong and intelligent Miss Holmes refuses to be controlled. When she discovers that her mother left her some significant financial resources with which to facilitate an independent existence, Enola escapes her brothers and makes her way to London. Once there, she realizes her calling to be a “Scientific Perditorian” or one who seeks lost things and people.

She ingeniously sets up a practice solving mysteries as only a woman can all the while evading detection by her brilliant brothers. But even as she gains more success and more knowledge of the world around her, Enola longs for connections as she reaches out to her mother and even tries to form a bond with her brothers, Sherlock in particular. Although she proves more than capable of taking care of herself, Enola also fears that she may be doomed to live up to her name which is simply “alone” spelled backwards.

Defined by Womanhood

Enola Holmes and the Peculiar Pink FanThe Enola Holmes Mysteries introduces us to a wonderful young heroine in Enola Holmes, every bit as brilliant as her famous brother, and sometimes proving even more so. Enola is well-read, intuitive, resourceful, and proactive, but what is even more fascinating about her character is that what enables her to outsmart her older brothers time and again is her being a woman.

The book series often illustrates how elaborate and intriguing certain “womanly” arts are such as the symbolism of flowers, the secret language of fans, and Morse code done in embroidery. Enola’s understanding of these womanly arts gives her the advantage over her brothers who, conforming to their patriarchal society’s standards, are often dismissive of such things. It is their narrow-mindedness and misogyny that blinds them (at least initially) not only to their sister’s talents but also to certain crucial clues for seemingly unsolvable mysteries.

Enola makes full use of her brothers’ propensity to underestimate her and she often delights in tricking or surprising them. One refreshing aspect of the books is avoiding the familiar trope of a feminist character disguising herself as a man or boy to blend into society. Enola Holmes turns this trope on its head and often disguises herself as different kinds of women precisely because she knows her brothers are expecting her to dress up as a boy. She easily deceives them by dressing up as the kind of women they would usually disregard such as mousy clerks or fashionable ladies.

Springer brings a meticulous attention to detail in her writing, vividly describing not only the architecture, linguistic quirks, and particular fashion of the period but also including codes and ciphers to engage the reader in solving the mysteries. As rebellious as she is, Enola appreciates the effort it takes to be a proper lady in her society and she masterfully displays her ability to be one even without being trained in finishing school. She also makes creative use of female paraphernalia such as corsets, bustles, and wigs where she ingeniously hides daggers or other useful items during her adventures.

Compassion over Logic

Enola Holmes as Sister of the StreetsSurprisingly for a series targeted towards younger readers, the Enola Holmes Mysteries tackles a number of grave and complex themes such as poverty, prostitution, war, disease, abuse, and even violence. Given that the main character often ventures into the dark underbelly of London, she is often exposed to these evils and it is by confronting them and not sugarcoating these unpalatable realities that the books become more compelling.

Enola is also a notably compassionate character, a contrast to the cold detachment of her older brothers. Where Sherlock and Mycroft see the world as a series of puzzles to be solved, Enola never neglects the human element of her cases, showing sympathy for the hapless victims and it is this profound compassion that drives her to solve the different mysteries, not just a desire to be clever.

It is Enola’s close relationships with several characters such as her landlady Mrs. Tupper and the Honorable Lady Cecily Alistair (in whom Enola finds a kindred spirit) that propels the plot for the books and not just a random group of characters enlisting the help of a detective. Enola is invested in every case because she truly cares about the people involved and that is what makes her so effective at finding solutions.

While being compassionate is viewed as a specifically female virtue, the books deftly illustrate how this can be a strength and not a weakness. Enola, and many female characters in the books, also shows true empathy for the miserable people around her and she actively tries to bring some comfort and support to the poor and mistreated, even going so far as disguising herself as a nun as she distributes food and clothing to the needy. A common theme throughout the series is that of rich and privileged characters seeking freedom from their constricted lives and then being confronted with the harshness of the world beyond their gilded cages. And just like Enola, several of these characters are moved by the plight of the poor around them and become better people by understanding their own privilege and finding ways to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate.

Holmes Family Dynamics

Enola Holmes and familyBut for all her brilliance, Enola is a relatable character because Springer does not make us forget that she is essentially a young girl who has been deprived of familial affection for most of her life and so has been forced to fend for herself. The first book begins with her being abandoned by her mother, the one family member she has known all her life. She is a stranger to her brothers and they to her so their first impulse is to simply try to make her follow their society’s standards without getting to know her better. Being every bit as independent as her mother, Enola has no choice but to make her way in the world.

As Enola’s adventures in London progress, she often crosses path with Sherlock and both develop a sort of rivalry and mutual admiration of each other. The books are faithful in their characterization of the iconic detective but also add a more human dimension to him in his complicated relationship with his young sister. Although he is at first governed by his own upbringing and position as a privileged man in society and thus initially underestimates Enola’s capacities, Sherlock comes to see in her a formidable fellow detective and as the books progresses, he not only acknowledges her successes but also grows more affectionate towards her.

Sadly, all members of the Holmes family are unaccustomed to showing any love for each other so this becomes a constant source of tension across the series. Both brothers are determined to do what they perceive to be their duty by their wayward younger sister but they are stubbornly unable to see that she wants a life unencumbered by society’s limitations for women. Sherlock is the first to appreciate his sister’s skills and uniqueness and he tries to make her trust him but for some time, Enola resists. While she longs to grow closer to her brothers, she also fears that to reach out to them would be to forfeit her hard-earned freedom.

Their mother is an enigmatic but influential figure although she does not appear often in the books. Not to spoil too much but Eudoria Holmes proves to be an unusual mother-character and while some readers may not agree with her motives and actions, the books still effectively portray her as a well-rounded individual with her own desires and hopes. Unorthodox though her methods may have been, she effectively paved the way for her daughter’s strength and success.

Since Sherlock and Enola are unable to resist an intriguing case, they soon learn to somehow work together. Eventually, even Mycroft comes to understand what his sister truly needs and reluctantly supports her endeavours. When Enola finally learns to trust her brothers and they her, the young woman achieves the life she has longed for and the freedom to pursue her calling as one who finds the lost. But this time, Enola will no longer be alone.