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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Review: The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Author: Caroline Lawrence

Release date: 2nd June 2011 UK
Genre: Western / Mysteries
Target audience: 10+
UK Publisher: Orion

Summary from Amazon:

When desperados kill a preacher and his wife in a small frontier town, their foster child P.K. is forced to go on the run. P.K. must get a valuable letter to the Recorder’s Office before anyone else can get their hands on it. It’s not easy: Virginia City in 1862 is a glorified mining camp on a barren mountain above a great vein of silver. Seething with miners below ground and hustlers above, it’s a dangerous place, full of gamblers, hurdy girls, saloon-keepers and gunmen, all of them on the make. When twelve year-old P.K. Pinkerton arrives there, homeless, penniless and hunted, things don’t look good. But armed with a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter and a knack for disguises, P.K. takes on the tricksters and desperados who are out to get him and he finds possible allies: Sam Clemens, the new reporter for the paper, a gambler called ‘Poker Face Jace’ who knows how to tell if someone is bluffing, a derringer-packing Soiled Dove, and a Chinese photographer’s apprentice called Ping.


The Case of the Deadly Desperados is the first book in Caroline Lawrence’s new series The Western Mysteries and if you ask me, it is a work of genius!

P.K. Pinkerton or Pinky to his friends is a half-Sioux half-American boy or quite possibly girl. One of the delights of this book is the fact that you never get to know Pinky’s gender. One minute I was absolutely certain that Pinky was a boy. The next I was thinking how empowering that Pinky was a girl. The author creates this uncertainty through Pinky’s love of disguises. For the purpose of this review, I am going to assume that P.K. is a boy but future books in the series may well prove me wrong.

So, twelve year old Pinky is the narrator and hero of this story. The novel is told in retrospect in Pinky’s own words as he recounts the experiences which lead him to being trapped down a silver mine. The novel is set in and around Virginia City. The year is 1862. The story really begins on Pinky’s birthday. He comes from school to find that his foster ma and pa have been scalped by a dastardly villain, the outlaw Whittlin Walt. P.K. has something that the famous outlaw wants and he will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. There are several threads of mystery running through the novel: the true identity of Pinky, the mystery of his parentage and the circumstances of the item that Walt is desperate to obtain.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados was a joy to read. Pinky’s voice felt truly original and quirky. I loved the fact that he had a very rational grasp of his hero’s weakness. That which the reader may think of as a flaw, Pinky thinks of as his Thorn. But like all great heroes, Pinky also has a gift. It was the perfect relationship between these two opposing character traits that made him so likeable and convincing a character. I also loved his interpretations of the shenanigans that go on in Virginia City. The author could easily have crossed the line making him overly religious and alienating but she actually uses his background to comic effect and yet with sensitivity.

The other feature of this book that worked superbly was the very short chapters. I think younger readers will speed like a runaway stagecoach through this book. There are lots of cliff hanger endings and use of foreboding which will keep them on the edge of their seat. Last year I was told that westerns were going to be big business in children’s fiction. This is surely the book to make such a grand statement happen. The Case of the Deadly Desperados is thrilling, funny and hugely entertaining. To top it all off, this book is incredibly well-written and its vibrant narrative voice is a complete hit with me. Fantastic.

Thanks to Orion Children's Books for sending the book to review.
Read for the British Books Challenge 2011.


Juliette said...

I loved this book - PK has such an unusual and distinctive narrative voice and it was so much fun immersing myself in the Western setting, which is almost totally new to me!

M said...

Aah, the gender! I've only flicked through the first pages but I was wondering the same thing. What a delight that it is never revealed - and telling that we still look to find it out. I've heard lots of good reviews about this book.