It’s been my pleasure this weekend to become reacquainted with P.K. Pinkerton, a 12-year old detective in 1860s’ Virginia City, a Wild West town where ‘folk either want to kill you or kiss you’ and a nom de plume isn’t just something you wear in your hat. There’s barely a nation in the world or a colour of skin that doesn’t have a representative in this town of poker, Soiled Doves, saloons, spitoons, fast-drawn guns and billy-goat beards. Life is short and if the wagons from the local quartz mine don’t cut you in two then its just as likely that the opium pipe or a bullet fired in hasty anger will get you. And when they do, the local paper will cover it (the Enterprise) and P.K. Pinkerton will make it his business to discover The Truth.
Caroline Lawrence has a gift. Actually she has (at least) two. She is not only hugely knowledgeable about daily life in the past, whether it be in the Wild West for the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries or in 1st century AD Rome for the superb Roman Mysteries, she is also able to impart that knowledge in the most accessible, informative and fun way. Both sets of mysteries may be aimed at kids (teens and a little younger) but, if age sets no barriers in your reading, as it doesn’t in mine, then you will soak up these worlds and you will learn stuff. Some years ago, I travelled around some original old ghost towns in the hills of California and when I read the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, I can hear the creak of the saloon swingdoors and I can feel the menace in the glare of the stranger from out of town.
In this second mystery for P.K. (Pinky) Pinkerton, and I will hazard a wager that it’s even better than The Case of the Deadly Desperados, P.K. is determined to investigate the murder of Short Sally. Sally is one of the town’s Soiled Doves, whose violent end was witnessed by her maid, the little Martha, whom, from that day forth, has trouble even staying alive. It’s not long before P.K. has a list of suspects which he doggedly pursues, swapping disguise for disguise and placing himself in great dangers.
In Virginia City life is cheap, especially if you’re an Indian or half-Indian like our young hero, if you’re a negro like Martha, or Chinese like Ping. Preachers may recite the gospel but this is a flock that dwells in bawdy houses or saloons. P.K. is an orphan of murdered adopted parents. But despite this sadness and isolation he likes to be alone and this is one of the great strengths of the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries.
P.K. is not your usual young boy. He has Foibles, Eccentricities and Mulligrubs. He is a child who doesn’t want to be touched, who has obsessions and will sit and rock himself in times of unhappiness. He always speaks the truth. There’s a strong sense that he isn’t quite what he seems. In the Wild West days a child (or even an adult) like this has a mission on his hands just surviving. But P.K. is surrounded by a bunch of fascinating characters, such as Poker Face Jace and writer Sam Clemens (later known as Mark Twain) who teach P.K. about understanding people – or, as P.K. sees it, being a detective – and in so doing teach us, the reader, more about these rough and tough old days.
This might be a book for kids but noone is spared the horrors of the day and in 1860s America that means the American Civil War. The trauma of a battle that leaves 20,000 men dead in piles of bodies is felt here. There are lynchings, slaves, woman as living playthings and harsh lives in the mines. There are too many violent deaths to even rate a line from the papermen of the Enterprise. But nevertheless there are plenty of laughs and, above all, wonderful descriptions of the town and landscape of Virginia City.
The story is enhanced by the book’s fantastic maps and little drawings that open and close each chapter or ledger sheet. Even the font, spelling and punctuation make a statement about the place and time. The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse is such a pleasure to read in so many ways.