Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Benny Kaminsky and Thunderbolt Dobney lead a rag-tag gang of neighborhood rowdies. Their territory is the New Cut on London's South Bank—a place bristling with swindlers, bookies, pickpockets, and the occasional policeman. And their aim is to solve crimes.
When counterfeit coins start showing up in their neighborhood, Thunderbolt fears his own father may be behind the crime. But his friends devise a way to trap the real culprit. Then the gang takes on the case of some stolen silver. They have just two clues—a blob of wax, and an unusually long match. But even this slippery thief is unmasked by the determined kids of the New Cut.
Filled with silly sleuthing, improbable disguises, crazy ruses, and merry mayhem, these stories are action-packed romps from one of the best storytellers ever—Philip Pullman.
Two Crafty Criminals! and How They Were Captured by the Daring Detectives of the New Cut Gang is actually a really long, unwieldy new title for two previously released UK novellas: Thunderbolt's Waxwork and The Gas-Fitters' Ball. These two hilarious stories tell the adventures of a 'gang' of enchanting, lively, quirky, kids in Victorian England.
Once again, Pullman has crafted characters that dwell in the reader's mind rather than the page. These kids are real kids: by turns smart, clueless, brave, cowardly, resourceful, compassionate, condescending, or just plain weird. Pullman takes turns following the different children, boy and girl alike, with each holding their own. I think that Two Crafty Criminals would be an exuberantly lively and amusing read to boys and girls alike--no matter which character takes the lead.
Pullman also does and excellent job of establishing time and place. He drops little hints here and there that make the story feel authentically Victorian, while never allowing the setting to overrun the story. And the slang is just fun; it was an absolute delight to read this aloud to my son!
The mysteries, and the antics the kids get up to while solving them, are often over-the-top--making them feel like the stories kids tell each other about their weekends or school vacations while bragging at recess. They are easily solved, but in a way that leaves young readers feeling triumphant at having figured things out. Plus, there are whimsically amusing pictures scattered throughout.
I think that Two Crafty Criminals joins the ranks of other Pullman works that are a pleasure to read aloud at bedtime. It would also do well to encourage a newly independent chapter book reader. My only caveat: the stories lend themselves best to younger middle grade readers, but the ability needed to understand the slang from context clues, and the occasionally difficult vocabulary words, make them better for older middle grade readers.
This review also appears at Goodreads; a review copy was provided by the publisher.