Friday, 1 May 2015

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

‘Sinclair’s’ is a stunning new department store about to open its doors in London’s Piccadilly. It’s going to be the place to go for the finest clothes, chicest hats, and sweetest bonbons. Sophie is one of the new shop girls and she desperately wants to fit in and make a go of things. But on the eve of the opening, a terrible theft takes place: the exquisite, jewel-encrusted clockwork sparrow is stolen from the grand exhibition installed by Mr. Sinclair as part of the opening fanfare. And Sophie was the last one seen in the exhibition hall…

We know Sophie is innocent, but can she prove it? Especially when the police and Sinclair’s management seem to determined to make her the scapegoat.

Of course, there is far more to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow than a simple theft. Here you will find everything you need in a good mystery: code cracking, secret passageways, gangs, double crosses and dirty dealings – even a kidnap, the threat of an ‘infernal device’ and a desperate bid to reveal the truth and save the day. Katherine Woodfine completely confounded me with the intricacies of her plotline, which dug deeper and deeper as the tale progressed; the twists and turns and connections are all kept well hidden until they are needed.

Sophie is a lovely heroine trying to be the best sort of person she can in a time when being a young independent woman was far from easy. Befriended by Billy, a young porter at the store (who’s more interested in catching up with the latest Boys of Empire comic than doing any actual ‘portering’), and Lil, a store model with theatre aspirations and more self confidence than the starriest starlet, they team up to decode the clues of the case and help out Joe, a homeless boy on the run from a notorious east end gang.

What is the importance of the clockwork sparrow? Could the theft be an inside job? But how? Can Sophie get her job back and can they keep Joe safe from the people who are after him? And who is the mysterious Baron? - Just mentioning his name is enough to send a shiver down your back.

There has been quite a revival recently of detective fiction for children and The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is another great addition. In the pre-war setting of 1909 (think Selfridges or Fortnum & Mason), Katherine Woodfine has created all sorts of fun and hi-jinx scenarios for Sophie and her eclectic band of friends. You get a real sense of the time and place from her writing but – like Robin Stevens and her Wells & Wong Mysteries – the plot and the pace and the characters are far from constrained by their world, and are as easy to engage with and as enjoyable to read as any contemporary characters. I'm looking forward to finding out what else is in store for Sophie, Billy, Lil and Joe!

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