Monday, 21 January 2013

The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse - Book Review

The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, by Caroline Lawrence, is the second book in her Western Mysteries series, and the sequel to The Case of the Deadly Desperados:

My name is P.K. Pinkerton and I am a Private Eye operating out of Virginia City.

At the moment I am in Jail in the shadow of a hangman's noose. It is all because I tried to solve the biggest mystery here in Nevada Territory and protect a girl who witnessed a terrible crime.

If I write an account of what happened, then maybe I can convince the jury not to hang me by the neck until I am dead. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

You know how there are certain authors whose books you feel sure you’re going to enjoy, because you always do? Caroline Lawrence is one of those for me. She just gets stories. And this one didn’t disappoint.

Pinky was a wonderful character in the first book and he/she continues to be a great narrator in this one. Pinky is a twelve-year-old, half-Sioux, autistic child living in the American Wild West in 1862. The first book had some deliberate confusion as to whether Pinky is a boy or a girl, which was worked into the plot in an interesting way. This one answers that question... at least, I think it does! For the sake of not giving away spoilers, I will refer to Pinky as a boy, the gender he/she is presented as at the beginning of the first book, and leave readers to find out for themselves. I think perhaps one of the best things about the gender mystery is that it is so hard to tell – Pinky’s actions and thoughts don’t give it away, despite the book being told in first person. This reminds us that boys and girls aren’t that different at all, and that separating life into ‘boy things’ and ‘girl things’ can be really daft.

Pinky is learning more and more how to interact with people and what makes them tick, an essential skill for a private eye. Poor Pinky still has a lot of trouble while developing this skill, however, and it is constantly getting him into trouble. This, combined with a killer who is determined to stop the investigation at all costs, even if it means killing both Pinky and the witness, makes for a very exciting story that races at break-neck speed from start to finish. This book is extremely hard to put down!

Pinky sees the world in a very straight-forward, and sometimes slightly naive way. He always says exactly what he thinks, and Caroline Lawrence makes great use of the first person perspective to get this across. He’s a fantastic character to see the world through, because he simply observes without judging. The author pulls no punches with the depiction of the Wild West world; there’s murder and violence, guns, blood, angry mobs, desperados, drinking and gambling, opium dens, war, slavery, oppression, prejudice, racism, prostitution... everything that really existed at that time in history.

Pinky interacts with all this, and with all kinds of people throughout the story. In fact, the mystery itself revolves around the murder of a prostitute. At no point does Pinky ever question the victim’s profession or lifestyle; it simply would not occur to him to do so. He also never reacts to anything with an attitude that might be typical of the time. He is hired by a runaway slave girl and immediately accepts the case. He shows equal amounts of respect to everyone, and when compiling a suspect list he does not consider a vicar any less likely to be a killer than another man. Pinky disguises himself in many different roles in order to carry out his investigation, which shows how the people around him react differently depending on his appearance.

Pinky’s matter-of-fact perspective and tendency to treat everyone the same highlights how hypocritical everyone else’s prejudices really are, as well as making Pinky a very likeable character. His very unbiased approach to the world also allows the reader to see the Wild West for what it was, through honest eyes, in order to come to their own conclusions. This is a fantastic way to tell children about the past, as well as quite a unique approach to a detective story that is extremely effective.

This story has a more complex mystery than the first book, which was focussed instead on action and introducing the main characters. There’s a good group of suspects and a variety of interesting motives that make for an intriguing story. It’s also very possible for the readers to solve the mystery themselves, as no clues are hidden from them. This makes the book fun and interactive too. Pinky will often lay out the clues he has found so far and work through the situation logically, allowing the reader to do the same. There are some interesting observations about the complexity of human motivations. When Pinky does finally solve the mystery, he reveals the killer in a very dramatic ending that even manages to draw some pathos for the killer. This might be a children’s book, but it’s a lot deeper than many adult murder mysteries I’ve read.

This is a wonderful sequel to The Case of the Deadly Desperados, and possibly even better than the first book. It’s fun and exciting, as well as educational. Children will learn a lot about life in America in the 1800s, as well as about people and their motivations, and about tolerance. It also has some great maps in the front that really bring the town to life! Can’t wait for more from this series.

Thank you to Caroline Lawrence for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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