After XVII Roman Mysteries, not counting a couple of Quiz Books and sundry mini-mysteries, Caroline Lawrence sets her new ‘The Western Mysteries’ series in her native state of California. Or rather, just over its northern border into Nevada Territories and the Wild West of 1860s Virginia City. The Case of the Deadly Desperados is the first to be recorded in the journal of 12-year-old PK Pinkerton, nephew of Allan, famed founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. PK’s long-term plan is to work as a Private Eye in his uncle’s outfit.
At the time of writing, though, things don’t look promising. PK’s got a distinctly short life expectancy, stuck at the bottom of a mine shaft with the Deadly Desperado Whittlin Walt and his gang hot on his trail (‘Whittlin’ because Walt slices bits off his victims before finishing the job). PK has certain gifts and limitations that make him a wonderful storyteller and protagonist – with echoes of the narrative voice and character of Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s True Grit, whose influence Caroline Lawrence gladly acknowledges. He’s an orphan (maybe) who is ‘very smart about certain things’. He’s well-read (an easy reference to Inspector Bucket in Bleak House), writes and speaks a number of languages, knows how to shoot and ride and hunt and cook and use medicinal weeds. He has astonishing hearing and eyesight. BUT, he cannot read people, has no idea whether smiles are genuine or false and can recognise only three emotions – happiness, fear, and anger. And he tends to get these mixed up.
This is cunning planning from our author. His strengths and blind spots get PK into and out of huge predicaments on almost every page. And because we know more than he does most of the time, we’re perpetually caught between anxiety, laughter, relief, incredulity and excitement. Virginia City has everything a Wild West mining town should have – gamblers, gunslingers, ladies of doubtful virtue (‘Soiled Doves’ – PK isn’t sure what that means exactly), opium dens, undertakers looking out for trade. I may have missed the tumbleweed blowing down Main Street, but it’ll be there. The pace is terrific, the spirits high, the twists and turns of fortune endless. Larger-than-lifes hurry in and out: Dan De Quille, editor of The Daily Territorial Enterprise; Isaiah Coffin, proprietor of the Ambrotype and Photographic Gallery; Belle Donne (Soiled Dove extraordinaire); and even a sharp young reporter, Sam Clemens, who writes under the name of Mark Twain.
At the end, PK decides Chicago can wait. He’s going nowhere for now. He’ll get Grafton T Brown to paint him a ‘Private Eye’ shingle and he’ll hang it up right here in Virginia City. There’ll be room in PK’s journal for many more cases.