The Western Mysteries: The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence
|The Western Mysteries: The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence|
|Genre: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Linda Lawlor|
|Summary: Twelve-year-old PK has something valuable, bequeathed to him by the father he never knew. But it seems that every villain in the Wild West wants it, and is prepared to betray, maim or kill anyone who gets in their way.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: June 2011|
|Publisher: Orion Children's Books|
|External links: Author's website|
It is always a little worrying when an author finishes a popular and well-loved series to start something new. Will the new characters be as interesting as the old, familiar ones? Will the books just be a pale retelling of the plots in a new context? But fans of Ms Lawrence's Roman Mysteries need not worry. What we have here is a rip-roaring tale of the Wild West, with tons of credible local colour, a bunch of villains every bit as wicked as those to be found in Ancient Rome, and a likeable lead character.
PK is half-Sioux and half-white, which makes him a loner from the start. Having lost his birth parents very young, he is taken in by a kindly preacher and his wife. But PK's real father, a railroad detective, left him something valuable, and someone has got wind of that fact - someone ruthless enough to kill his foster parents, and cunning enough to disguise the murders as an Indian attack by scalping them. But PK soon realises these deaths are not random, because the villains have left the reek of Bay Rum Hair Tonic behind them, and Indians don't use hair tonic. PK knows flight is the only option. His foster mother once told him he was probably the nephew of Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who was famous for rescuing Abraham Lincoln from an assassination attempt, and he decides to go to Chicago to join the family firm.
PK is an unusual and intriguing main character. He is definitely somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, and has an uncanny ability to notice tiny details and recall copious amounts of facts. But he suffers from one serious social problem, which he calls his Thorn: he cannot read people, and he has very little understanding of what they are feeling. And there is a further mystery. PK dresses, and behaves like, a boy. But at one point he insists he is actually a girl. Is this just a ploy to confuse the villain who has trapped him? The whole book is written in the first person, so a slight doubt remains in the reader's mind, to be resolved, perhaps, in a later volume in the series.
The Roman Mysteries is well regarded for the accuracy and depth of its research as well as its exciting plots, and Ms Lawrence gives the American West the same treatment. She gives us a satisfyingly large amount of information without making the story feel over-burdened, and always manages to choose the one telling detail which makes the scene come to life. PK makes his way to Virginia City Nevada, a rough and ready mining town, and he arrives there at the same time as the journalist Sam Clemens, later to be known as Mark Twain. We visit Chinese laundries, newspaper offices and saloons, and meet gunslingers, card-sharps and even a girl PK refers to as a Soiled Dove. We see the fever which prospecting for gold and silver can cause in a man, and explore one of the many mines which pock-mark the landscape. And if that whets your appetite, there is a very good website, which provides further information and fascinating facts about the era.
In keeping with the convention of the Wild West hero as a loner, a misfit with no home and no clear identity, PK does not become part of a tight-knit group of friends, but instead remains alone, making his own decisions and most often fighting his own battles. The book provides a new take on old setting, and does it so successfully that it will probably not be long before other books about the Wild West appear on our shelves. But this one will stand out from the crowd, for the originality of its main character, and the surprisingly wide range of people who meet and like him. After all, who could resist someone who not only starts the book by calmly stating he will be dead by the end of the day, but goes on to leave explicit instructions about the wording and Bible quotation to be placed on his tombstone? Original, intriguing, and a lot of fun – this book is well worth reading.
Many thanks to Orion for sending this excellent story to Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: If you enjoyed this, and want to read more by Caroline Lawrence, you can try the 'Roman Mysteries. They've had mixed reviews on Bookbag, but a lot of young people enjoy them, and if you're curious about Ancient Rome the research is spot on. Try The Prophet from Ephesus. Fans of more contemporary detectives will like Half Moon Investigations by the always-excellent Eoin Colfer, or Saxby Smart: Private Detective: The Secrets of the Skull by Simon Cheshire.
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