Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rant: Nobody's talking about my Newbery favorite

Lots of people are talking about whether buzz matters or not, so I'm not counting my favorite contender out yet.  But I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing?  A reason this book, which got positive reviews, falls short of distinguished?  The book I'm talking about is The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence.  [ETA: Question answered!  Charlotte kindly points out that the book is not eligible.] 

I never reviewed the book here, because I when I first finished it, I couldn't imagine talking about it without mentioning a certain spoiler.  But now that I have some emotional distance, I'd like to point out a few reasons I love it.  Some of them make it distinguished; others just reflect my tastes and preferences.  But if you haven't read it, maybe these will convince you to give it a try.

Deadwood for children, anyone?
First of all, it's a mystery set in the wild west, narrated by the child of a Pinkerton detective.  It begins with P.K. finding the murdered bodies of his adoptive parents, along with a birthday cake Ma just made.  It could be a painfully poignant scene, but mostly it's scary and disturbingly funny as P.K. tells how he outsmarts the murderers and escapes on a stage coach out of town. 

The murderers pursue P.K. because he has a small piece of paper they consider valuable.  In the picaresque adventures that follow, P.K. meets a diverse cast of characters, each with their own tall tales, some of whom help him and some of whom double-cross him.

Things to love:

The narrative voice.  P.K. has what we would label Aspergers or Autism.  Clever in many ways, P.K. doesn't express or interpret emotions effectively.  This makes him an able and believable narrator in scenes that would otherwise be emotionally crushing, and makes for some hilarious deadplan humor. 

The vivid picture of the West.  Thank you, Caroline Lawrence, for depicting a Wild West in which the Native Americans haven't all ridden off into the sunset.  Although the tropes are all here (the outlaw, the card sharp, the newspaper man, the hooker), we also meet a diverse group of characters ranging from a Chinese boy who works for a photographer to a famous black landscape artist.*

The perfect setting for a caper.  Most of the story takes place in a gold mine town that's a few square blocks next to a mountain.  When P.K. runs through the streets trying to outwit his pursuers (and he seems to gain pursuers as the story goes on), you know exactly which streets he's running down.  He has a clear mental map, and the fact that the whole story takes place in such a small, maze-like setting notches up the tension.

Cameos by real historical figures.  I don't want to say who, but he appears in children's books with startling regularity.  Almost as often as Charles Dickens.

The twist.  I can't talk about it for fear of spoilers, but it's one of those that makes you want to go back and reread the book in a new light.

Have I convinced anyone?  Has anyone else read it?  Or are there other under-the-radar books that you can see winning a silver sticker?

*Occasionally, I admit, these meetings detract from the forward-motion of the plot.  That's one of my few critiques of the book.  But the characters are all engaging.


  1. I don't think it's eligible--I don't think Caroline Lawrence is either a citizen or resident of the US. And I think it might have been published in the UK first....

  2. Aha! You're right. It was first published in the UK by Orion in 2011.