I’m a firm believer that a good tale told by a fine storyteller should have no limitations in its audience. If an author creates a world I want to immerse myself in then I will completely ignore the direction that this is a book for children or Young Adults. In fact, I like to maintain that I am a Young Adult, it’s just that I’m a little older.
I am a big fan of Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries (my review of The Secrets of Vesuvius). Not just because they’re exciting adventures told well, evoking my favourite of all periods of history, but because I know how much they will excite younger readers, making them as keen to learn about Roman history as to read words on the page. When I was younger I became such a passionate seeker of knowledge about history because of the novels I read. I also wanted to read stories because history was revealed to me as a subject I wanted to read about. Caroline Lawrence has a great gift for communicating this deep love both for the past and for its revelation through storytelling.
While the Roman Mysteries take a rest, Caroline has turned her attention to something a little closer to her native home of San Francisco – the Western and the Wild Wild West. The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries have begun with the first story entitled The Case of the Deadly Desperados. As the novel begins, P.K. Pinkerton – or Pinky – discovers his adopted parents scalped and murdered by an axe blow. Before his adopted mother passes away, she tells Pinky that the killers were after the contents of his medicine bag. Inside it is little of value, just a button from the jacket of his real father, a detective from Chicago, and a letter promising the bearer a piece of land that may, or may not, be worth staking a claim. With just this and a gold coin, Pinky sets off to find his real father’s detective relatives in Chicago. The problem is that the killers are on his trail and, when Pinky gets the chance to run and hide in the alphabetically aligned streets of Virginia City, he does so. From that moment on, P.K. Pinkerton has nothing but his wits, brains and nerve to see him through, hampered as he is by his biggest failing in life – he cannot tell when another human being tells him a lie.
Along the way, P.K. Pinkerton meets some other characters who throw light on this mysterious but completely gripping Wild West world. There is Whittlin Walt, the nasty villain so named because he takes his victims apart bit by bit, Belle the Soiled Dove, Sam Clemens later known to history as Mark Twain, Jace the poker-faced poker player, Ping, the Celestial that we would recognise as a Chinese boy, and so many more including P.K.’s natural mother, a Lakota or Sioux called Squats on a Stump.
This mix of the real, the funny, the exciting and the dangerous defines The Deadly Case of the Desperados as a fast and pacey read, full of so many little details that both entertain and educate in equal measure. P.K. Pinkerton is not a straightforward character. There is mystery in him so much so that you can never be that sure that he even is a him. He can work out any mathematical sum in his head, he doesn’t show emotion and he doesn’t see other people in quite the way others do. And so that leaves him vulnerable to great danger while also giving him enormous strength to face it. This side of P.K., the side that doesn’t like to be touched but gradually lets people do just that, adds another dimension to this novel that pulls the heart right in.
The Case of the Deadly Desperados is such a good looking book. Little pictures open and close each chapter or Ledger Sheet while maps and diagrams give you a foot up into the case. Caroline Lawrence has a fantastic way of explaining a mystery, a set of circumstances or the methods of deduction – a delicious cake, for instance, is tortured and distorted for the sake of trying to visualise the way in which a mine is formed.
While the Wild West may seem a long way away for modern young readers, just like ancient Rome, after reading this book it’s a safe bet to say that they will be all the wiser and the richer for it. Roll on P.K. Pinkerton’s second mystery!
My copy of The Case of the Deadly Desperados was signed by Caroline at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival last month. You can read all about that here.