The most recent in my pile of really cracking reads, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, by Caroline Lawrence, is a whiz-banger of a western.
PK Pinkerton’s troubles begin on his twelfth birthday with the grisly murder of his foster parents, the preacher and his wife. Staged to look like The Indians Done It, all PK knows is that the desperado called Walt, who smells of Bay Rum Hair Tonic (and “Indians do not wear Hair Tonic”), is after something in PK’s medicine bag. As PK and his medicine bag escape to Virginia City–aka Satan’s Playground–with Walt hot on his tail, what he does not yet know is that Walt is called Whittlin Walt because “he likes to whittle pieces off his victim before he kills them and because he often quotes Walt Whitman as he does so.”
What Whittlin Walt does not yet know is that he’s chasing no ordinary boy. PK tells us early on that he is real smart about certain things. He can “read and write and do any sum in [his] head,” speak four languages (American, Lakota, some Chinese, and some Spanish). And he has Indian-sense, which enables him to “track & shoot & skin any game” and “tell what a horse has been eating just by the smell of his manure.”
However, PK’s one big shortcoming, which he calls his Thorn (see 2 Corinthians 12:7), is that people confound him. Because he can’t read emotions, he uses Ma Evangeline’s expression rubric instead:
1. If someone’s mouth curves up & their eyes crinkle, that is a Genuine Smile.
2. If their mouth stretches sideways & their eyes are not crinkled, that is a Fake Smile.
3. If a person turns down their mouth & crinkles up their nose, they are disgusted.
4. If their eyes open real wide, they are probably surprised or scared.
5. If they make their eyes narrow, they are either mad at you or thinking or suspicious.
Now you see why PK gets into so many scrapes upon his arrival to Virginia City, where he must navigate his way through drunkards, profiteers, gunslingers, Soiled Doves, Celestials, poker players, a newspaperman by the name of Sam Clemens, and a local artist called Grafton T. Brown, all with their own agendas and firearms–while evading the baddies! There’s action, danger, disguises, Derringers and daring-do, suspense, mystery, dirty dealings, double crossing, bluffs and betrayals, and above all, a mother-lode (think mining!) of humor.
Though it’s never stated, PK’s Asgergers make him unique among the pantheon of clever boy protagonists, partly because there are so few main characters with an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and partly because there’s a lot more to PK than his Aspergers. Although his Thorn gets him into tricky scenarios again and again, PK is constantly assessing and learning from previous escapes and applying it to his current situation. And when he shows compassion towards certain dubious characters, it’s not because he’s overly trusting and naive, but because he’s kind and decent. Thorn or no Thorn, readers will definitely relate to and root for this resourceful, optimistic and honest misfit who just wants to “uncover the Truth and bring Justice.” And stay alive.