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A Letter to Readers About The Secret Detectives from Ella Risbridger

Posted on 9th June 2021 by Mark Skinner

In her debut children's novel The Secret Detectives, Ella Risbridger weaves a thrilling murder mystery set aboard a Victorian ship which nods pointedly towards Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic The Secret Garden. In this letter to Waterstones readers, Ella discusses her complex relationship with the book, in particular its representations of race and empire.  

The Secret Detectives is a murder mystery prequel to The Secret Garden, set on a ship. Sort of. It’s about sweets, and space travel (circa 1892), and secret codes. It’s about secrets generally: secrets and murder and the great wide Indian Ocean. It’s about sugar and stories and death; and about trying your best. 

That’s my elevator pitch, anyway, and maybe that’s enough to make you want to read it. But I thought I’d write this to say a little bit more, just in case, about where this book came from: where it came from, and why I had to write it, and why maybe you should read it. 

It might have come from a moment in a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery novel where the detective can’t bear to hear eight o’clock strike, because it marks the execution of the murderer. (It might have come from lots of moments in Dorothy L. Sayers.) It might have come from someone giving my then-toddler godchild, who is both Indian and English, a beautifully bound copy of The Secret Garden. It might have come from a year in my life when somebody died; and the people I learned to love in that year, people who loved me exactly as I was, grieving and strange. 

But really, of course, I started writing this book nearly twenty years ago. 

I was ten, then: a weird little girl with a moon face and a tendency to tantrums. Meltdowns, I know to call them now, but I was just a kid then: a kid who should have grown out of tantrums, and hiding in cupboards, and having overwhelming feelings about everything. I liked books a lot: Dorothy L. Sayers and The Secret Garden and a large purple encyclopaedia about the Victorians with many diagrams of ships and the Crystal Palace. I liked words, history, mysteries, and diagrams. I found people pretty baffling. 

I was OK, as weird little kids go. I went to a school small enough that nobody minded when I spent a lot of time by myself in the library, obsessively researching Ghanaian cocoa farming or the Dresden firebombings. I had friends, although I found them generally confusing. Mostly I copied what they did, although sometimes I could convince them to believe in something I believed: some story I’d invented that made perfect sense to me, some world of my own I’d constructed to make sense of this world of theirs. If you put your ear to the ground in the school hall, you can hear voices in the pipes, and only I can translate them. The churchwarden is a murderer, and only we can bring him to justice. I cared a lot about justice: about fairness (see the Ghanaian cocoa farms and British war crimes). I cared a lot about the right thing, which is I suppose what this book is about: justice, fairness, the right thing. 

It’s a murder mystery, so that makes sense. All murder books are about justice. And yet it’s about justice on another level, too: a level that’s bigger than just one man, just one murder. It’s about acknowledging a bigger wrong than that. It’s about a wrong that, even now, we give to children every day: about a wrong I was made complicit in, and maybe you were too, when we were too little to notice, and The Secret Garden just seemed like a story about magic and gardens and learning to be a person. Which it is. And yet, there’s this darkness there. 

There’s this horror to The Secret Garden that nobody ever talks about. It is, after all, a novel that starts with a neglected child - alone but for a little brown snake - passed out drunk at an abandoned dinner party in a house of the dead. And still, the horror goes deeper. It’s a horror that you see, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, only in flickers. You see it when Mary Lennox calls Martha a daughter of a pig; in her disgust when someone suggests she might be a native; that she might herself ever make a salaam. You see it when Martha can’t believe Mary herself isn’t a black. You see it in the carved elephants and vast tapestries that decorate the house in Yorkshire; and all the wealth of Empire that they represent. And you see it in all Mary’s Indian servants, nameless in their work, and nameless in their death. You see it, or rather, you don’t see it: like a fish in water, a bird in the air, a frog in the pot, it happens all around you, insidious and constant. 

And then when you do see it – as I did the year I was ten, the year I cared so much about the bombing of Dresden and fairtrade cocoa farming – you can’t believe nobody else is talking about it. You can’t believe nobody else is angry about it. The thing about being the kind of weird kid I was – and still am, really – is that you can’t conceive of other people having different ideas about things; you’re sure that if you just explain yourself properly and loudly, they’ll see what you see, believe what you believe. This book, I suppose, is in some ways me trying to explain myself properly and loudly. 

It’s me trying to explain what it was like for me as a little girl, perplexed by so many ordinary social conventions and obsessed with fairness. It’s about being a weird little girl – and a weird adult – who learned to have friends, who learned to be around people, who learned to be loved. It’s about trying to show you the things I love, like The Secret Garden and Gaudy Night and schematics of old-time ships. 

And it’s me trying to explain the things I saw in those things that seem to me – more now than ever – to be wrong. There’s only one murder in this murder mystery, but it stands for a million more preventable deaths, too: millions and millions of people killed, or murdered, or let die, because of the systemic racism of the British government in India. Which is, of course, the same racism that means we keep giving kids The Secret Garden: keep making movies of it, keep publishing new and beautiful editions of it, keep acting as if something being a gorgeous, compelling classic means we shouldn’t ever question it. 

It’s our job – by which I mean my job, specifically as a white British writer – to question it. It’s my job to look at the legacy I’ve inherited, and my place within it; it’s my job to look at the insidious racism that’s everywhere, and the racism that’s mine by default. It’s my job to speak to The Secret Garden; to try and talk back to this book I love so much, and have done all my life. I grew up on this, like so many of us; and now I have grown up I knew I needed to write this book. Someone needed to ask Frances Hodgson Burnett these questions; and this is a book about questions: about doing the right thing, about trying to find the right thing. It’s a book, like all my books, about trying your best. 

This is already too long, and it makes this story sound worthy. I don’t think it is, especially. I think it’s silly and fun and exciting and scary and full of condensed milk and murder and Turkish delight. I think everything in this letter is sort of hidden in the story itself; I think this letter is about being loud and clear about things I hope, in the story, are as constant and subtle as the things we inherited from Frances Hodgson Burnett in the first place. 

This book owes a lot to lots of people – editors, agents, sensitivity readers – and I am so grateful. And I am grateful, too, to you. I’m so grateful to you for getting this far with this very long letter, and for opening this book. Thank you. I have – as you can probably imagine – tried my best. 

Ella x

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