Two Crafty Criminals!: And How They Were Captured by the Daring Detectives of the New Cut Gang
First things first: if readers come to Philip Pullman's TWO CRAFTY CRIMINALS! looking for the kind of grand fantasy and gravitas they found in his His Dark Materials trilogy, they're likely to be sorely disappointed. But long-time fans of the author know that long before THE GOLDEN COMPASS, he had a long-standing interest in Victorian "penny dreadfuls," melodrama and adventure stories. TWO CRAFTY CRIMINALS! certainly participates in this tradition, and will show fans a lighthearted and funny side of Pullman even as it illustrates the strength of his writing.
This newly repackaged volume actually brings together two short novels --- THUNDERBOLT'S WAXWORKS and THE GAS-FITTERS' BALL --- that were published originally in the early 1990s. Now they have been brought together in a single volume with new illustrations by Martin Brown.
"The two stories collected here are both genuinely entertaining mysteries as well as pretty darn funny."
The novels are loosely united by their focus on mysteries (there are indeed two criminals to be caught, one in each novel) and by their loosely assembled cast of characters, a crew of adventure-loving kids known as the "New Cut Gang," who live in London's working-class Lambeth neighborhood in the late 1800s. These kids are street smart --- as evidenced by their skill at catching the aforementioned criminals --- but they "regarded the School Board as the slow-witted opponent in a delightful game, and played hookey at the slightest opportunity."
In the first story, Thunderbolt, who lives with his hapless inventor father, has a very personal reason for trying to figure out who's been producing and palming off counterfeit coins among the poor people of Lambeth. Thunderbolt is worried that the police suspect his father—and he has more than a few doubts of his own about his father's innocence, too!
In the second story, Thunderbolt plays a less central role (and a couple of primary characters from the first story don't even appear at all), while the angelic-looking (but seriously conniving) Peretti twins --- Angela and Zerlina --- play a more important role. The kids want to help lovesick but desperately shy Dick Smith propose to his girlfriend Daisy. But their impulse is hardly selfless --- it turns out the kids have a lot of money riding on the deal! Meanwhile, a collection of valuable silver artifacts has been stolen from the place where Dick works. Can the New Cut Gang help Dick overcome his "love phoby" and also recover the stolen loot, all before the deadline of the Gas-Fitters' Ball?
The two stories collected here are both genuinely entertaining mysteries as well as pretty darn funny. Those who are familiar with Pullman only through his more "serious" fiction will be surprised (one hopes pleasantly so) by the tongue-in-cheek tone of TWO CRAFTY CRIMINALS!, as well as its adherence to the conventions of 19th-century adventure novels. Old-fashioned fun abounds!
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 27, 2012