Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Guest Post- Juliette Harrisson Review: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, by Caroline Lawrence


I am delighted to have a guest post from Juliette Harrisson from the wonderful Pop Classics, reviewing the second in Caroline Lawrence's Western Mysteries. Thank you so much, Juliette!

This book was received as a review copy from the author, but the review represents my honest opinion.

Image: waterstones.com

Depending on how many British friends you have, you might not be aware of this, but here in Blighty we are currently experiencing what must be one of the worst summers in living memory. We’ve had bad summers before, but this one is something special. As I write, I have the heating on and I’m wearing a winter jumper.

The reason I’m sharing our national pastime (talking about the weather) with all of you is that one of the greatest comforts in such a situation is being able to pick up a book and pretend to be somewhere else entirely – specifically, somewhere much, much warmer. I was delighted, then, to receive a copy of the second book in Caroline Lawrence’s series of western-themed detective stories for children, The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. The series has been rebranded from its original title, The Western Mysteries, presumably to emphasise the importance of the central character, a slightly mysterious half-Indian 12-year-old with an autistic spectrum disorder. The story takes place in the thin air and hot sand of Virginia City, expertly described and including a handy map for those of us who’ve never been closer to the Wild West than New York.

One of the most fun things about this series is the element of wish-fulfilment its target audience. P.K., having acquired plenty of money at the end of the first book, lives alone and works as a private eye, going to saloons (to drink soft drinks), helping out poker players and meeting future famous authors. Although several adult characters comment on this situation, the lack of social workers and general lawlessness means they can’t do much about it. I remember how much I enjoyed reading stories about children having to survive on their own, or being allowed to go to bars, or live alone, or work for a living when I was 10-12 years old, and this aspect of the story will be great fun for young readers. The narrative also provides solid and plausible reasons for why the police are not investigating the murder P.K. is hired to solve, which sadly ring all too true.

Much of the story here revolves around the eclectic collection of people living in Virginia City in this period, and their different accents and dialects. The accents are wonderfully written. English accents are harder for me to distinguish because I am English and they just read like normal speech, but Irish and Southern dialects are beautifully rendered through grammar and vocabulary, as well as the usual spelling alterations to indicate the accent. I confess, I’m not sure I’d have followed the black Southern accent quite so well if I hadn’t happened to be watching DVDs set in Louisiana earlier in the week, but young British readers will easily recognise the French, German and Irish accents and the older ones may enjoy having a go at the Southern ones. (I remember how much I enjoyed delivering dramatic line-readings of To Kill a Mockingbird in school aged about 15, in full-on fake Southern accent. I loved playing with that accent!).

I think this series perhaps skews just a little older than The Roman Mysteries (though they had their fair share of danger and mature themes as well). The books are middle-grade, but as the title indicates, they are probably more suitable for the higher end of that age-range. There are some relatively gruesome descriptions of definitely not good-looking corpses, descriptions of Civil Wars battles, plot points built around the profession of Soiled Doves (though this profession is always alluded to rather than described in detail) and several gunfights. In some ways, this is no different to the fantasy novels beloved of children across the world, in which the hero fights with a magic wand or a sword. I remember re-reading Prince Caspian and being mildly shocked to discover a fairly detailed description of Peter Pevensie hacking a man’s legs off and then chopping off his head with the backswing, which apparently didn’t bother me at all at six years old. But there is something more immediate about guns that might frighten some younger children.

I’ve learned so much about American history from reading these books, and in a thoroughly enjoyable way. This second volume is exciting, entertaining and intriguing (OK, I confess, I guessed who the murderer was as soon as he appeared. But I didn’t guess his motivation). I especially enjoyed the odd hint or reference to P.K.’s Indian background – fingers crossed for a future volume that explores this side of Glares From a Bush’s heritage. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended.

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