The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

We’re so happy to host author Kate Hannigan on the Mixed-Up Files today. She’s the author of the Cupcake Cousins series, and today is the release date for her thrilling historical fiction adventure, The Detective’s Assistant.

Synopsis: Eleven-year old Nell Warne arrives on the doorstep of her Aunt Kate, the first ever female detective for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. With huge events unfolding in the Civil War era nation, Nell uncovers truths about her past and also helps her aunt solve mysteries in the present. Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this is a tale filled with nail-biting suspense, adventure, and history.

Q: Hi Kate! Tell us how you came up with the idea for this story.

A: It seems that 1856 is my year. I was researching another story altogether when I sort of stumbled onto a sentence about Kate Warne and how she was hired as a Pinkerton detective. It was just a quick aside about her, but it struck me as a fascinating tidbit. I wondered why I’d never heard of her — America’s first woman detective? And she’d had a hand in saving Abraham Lincoln’s life? I began to dig deeper into the history of Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, reading anything I could find on the cases that involved Kate Warne. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. Then I began to worry that I was going to get scooped. So I sat myself down and wrote like a madwoman!

Q: Your Cupcake Cousins series is not historical fiction. Was it hard to switch to a different genre?

A: At first I wanted to write Kate Warne’s story as a picture book biography. But I quickly realized the story I wanted to tell couldn’t be contained to 32 pages! I felt like a middle grade audience was the right one for this. They’re the right age to appreciate a clever heroine and perhaps want to be as bold and courageous as Kate Warne.

It wasn’t hard to switch gears into writing a history-rich story. The whole experience writing The Detective’s Assistant was really fun. Being a complete nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the pre-Civil War era. I checked out stacks of books — from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Godey’s Ladies Book. I wandered around the Chicago History Museum and even called a railroad museum for details about what exactly my characters would be sitting on while riding a train in 1860.Detectives Assistant cover medium

Q: You feature strong girl characters in your books. Did you set out to do this, or did it happen as you were writing the characters?

A: I do love writing strong, clever, resourceful girls. I was a big Charlie’s Angels fan growing up, and while that show can be dismissed as nothing but fluff and great hair, back then it was groundbreaking. Women detectives solving crimes, fighting bad guys, doing all sorts of exciting things! I loved that they could save the day. Fast forward to The Detective’s Assistant. I wanted to present a female heroine who was smart, clever, able to fight bad guys using her wits and intelligence, and I wanted her niece to realize that she had those same traits within herself.

My hope was to write a book where girls can see themselves at the center of the action, not relying on boys to handle the dangerous parts. The protagonist, Nell Warne, who is 11, puts all her cleverness to work, and the results become enormous as the stakes continue to rise. I hope young readers feel a bit more powerful after reading the book.

Q: Can you share a favorite quote from The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Okay if I share three?

“Just a girl?” retorted Detective Webster, the smile never leaving his face. “There’s no such thing as just a girl, is there?”

“Be fearless, Nell,” he whispered. “In everything you do. Fearless.”

“His accent was bouncy and strange, and I figured he must have come from somewhere exotic. Probably Texas.”

Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love about writing for this age?

A: I believe middle grade books are where the truths are. There is so much growing and searching and imagining at this age; to be able to present possibilities to readers on the cusp of everything, that’s pretty special. I also love writing for this age because it takes me right back to my own younger self. I am still very much an 11-year old wanna-be detective, though I’ve never been able to get my hair to do the same thing as Jaclyn Smith’s.Kate Hannigan Head Shot medium

Q: Same for me! She had amazing hair! So what do you hope readers will take away from this story?

A: I hope readers will realize that women were great contributors to American history, but often their stories were dismissed or forgotten. It’s important that we’re willing to explore for ourselves and come back with new stories to tell, stories that perhaps might feature non-traditional heroes.

Q: What three words describe The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Madcap, rollicking, heartfelt.

Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

A: I’m excited for Cupcake Cousins Book 2, titled Cupcake Cousins: Summer Showers, which comes out in June. I’m in the process of writing Book 3 in that series, which publishes fall 2016. I’ve also just signed with Calkins Creek for a nonfiction picture book biography for spring 2017.

Q: Finally, fill in the blanks:

1) I’d love to go to… San Simeon, California, and whale watch.

2) If I had the chance, I would… learn how to speak Gaelic.

3) In my spare time, I… cook for my family while we’re all together being goofballs.

Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Kate. Check out more at

Michele Weber Hurwitz was a big Encyclopedia Brown fan as a kid. She’s the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Visit her at

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Michele Weber Hurwitz
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both Penguin Random House). Visit her at
  1. Thank you, Jessica and Rosi! I think when kids hear “historical fiction,” they often bolt for the exits! What I was trying to do in writing this story was make it exciting and a little exhilarating. And maybe then they’ll dive into real history and discover that it really WAS exhilarating! I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Love this interview! And I absolutely cannot wait to get my eyes on this book. It sounds right up my alley and I’ll bet middle graders are going to gobble it up.

  3. I do love historical fiction and this one sounds terrific. Thanks so much for telling me about it. The interview was wonderful. I enjoyed every word. I will definitely be looking for The Detective’s Assistant.

  4. Yes, LouG, seems like a great time for historical fiction! I hope you enjoy it!

  5. I can’t wait to read your latest, Kate! I love historical fiction, and when it’s based on a true story, that makes it even better. Sounds like you are busy with books-yay!

    I’d love to learn Gaelic, too. It’s so musical.