A young Emily Dickinson meets a mysterious young man near her house one day, but before she can get to know him or even learn his real name, he turns up dead in her family’s pond. Emily is understandably distraught, and sets out to solve his murder–and his identity–before he ends up being buried without ceremony.
Not long on plot, this fairly innocuous mystery from Michaela MacColl asks readers to imagine that Emily Dickinson was an amateur sleuth. While it reads quickly and is enjoyable enough, the novel definitely lacks any sort of staying power. Chalk that up to a lackluster mystery, for the most part.
Of course, part of the problem is that MacColl has to work to lend credibility to the fact that her heroine is Emily Dickinson, famous poet. There’s some nice stuff here about Emily’s biographical past, but it’s a bit strange to see Dickinson seemingly compose entire poems in her head, without ever writing them down or playing around with the word structure. Also of note is the fact that the author uses Dickinson’s altered poems, because those are the ones in the public domain. It isn’t a detail that will bother all readers, but those who are die-hard fans of Dickinson might take issue with it.
Probably the novel’s biggest fault is that the mystery just isn’t that interesting at all. Because it’s set in a small town and because Emily’s social circle is so small, there’s not exactly a vast cast of characters to interrogate and guess about. There are also virtually no red herrings, so readers can’t even guess and be wrong. This probably won’t work for readers looking for a twisty mystery.
Even so, this one will appeal to fans of Dickinson, and those looking for a cozier (as cozy as death can be, I guess) mystery might find appeal here. It could definitely work for a middle grade audience, but as far as historical fiction goes, it’s pretty middle-of-the-pack.
Nobody’s Secret by Melinda MacColl. Chronicle Books: 2013. Library copy read for the 2013 Cybils.