P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperados: P.K. Pinkerton, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperados: P.K. Pinkerton, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Tween boy hunts killers in funny, violent Wild West saga.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

P.K.'s an avid learner who especially loves languages and maps, and thanks to his late foster parents has a good knowledge of Scripture. Many historical figures of the time and place make an appearance: artists, newspaper editors, and Sam Clemens himself (often spouting pearls of wisdom from his future books). The main villain's a fan of poet Walt Whitman. The Civil War rages in the background, and there are references to slavery.

Positive Messages

In The Case of the Deadly Desperados, the emphasis is more on adventure, rogues, and scoundrels than moral uplift. But resourcefulness, courage, persistence, trying to do the right thing, and keeping your promises all prove useful (to P.K. and others).

Positive Role Models & Representations

P.K. has a strong sense of right and wrong, thanks largely to his late foster parents. They seem to have been the first positive influence in his life, teaching him to read, giving him a moral foundation, and showing him love and kindness, although some of the preacher's advice is infused with the racism of the day. Assorted characters from Sam Clemens to Poker Face Jace are frequently flawed but also offer P.K. useful support and survival skills. P.K. is a positive reperestation of a person on the autism spectrum, who's also half Lakota. 


The book opens with P.K.'s discovery of his murdered and scalped foster parents in the bloody kitchen; his birth parents were previously killed in separate incidents. Other characters also meet violent ends; the murderers who pursue PK take other victims, and someone cuts the throat of a prostitute. Gunplay and brawling are common, and even the school bully's after P.K.


A conversation with Poker Face Jace reveals that P.K.'s familiar with sex as a concept from watching animals mate, but thinks the same activity between men and women is just stupid. P.K. spots a man and a woman "bouncing up and down on the bed." "Soiled doves" are prominent characters: "When I asked what a Soiled Dove was," P.K. recalls, "[Pa] said it was a low-class woman who sparked men for pay.... I asked him what 'spark' meant. He said it meant to kiss & cuddle. He was going to tell me more but then Ma shushed him." When dressed as a boy, P.K.'s pursued by a girl who wants to kiss him; when he's dressed as a girl, he's pursued by boys.


P.K.'s writing the story, and when some characters use a swear word, he writes it as "D-mn!" P.K. and other characters routinely use words ("Chinaman," "chop-chop!") that were common in the 19th century but are considered racist today. A villain calls a female character a "filthy Hore!"


Frequent mention of brands of firearms, such as Colt, Smith & Wesson. One of the murderers wears Bay Rum Hair Tonic.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Dying foster mom Evangeline makes P.K. promise to avoid hard liquor; P.K. prefers black coffee. Other characters are seen drinking in saloons; drunks are part of the boom-town landscape, and robbers prey upon them. Virginia City also has a thriving opium-den scene, and one of the characters (who has robbed P.K. to get money for drugs) is described in a drugged haze after smoking opium. A doctor gives P.K. laudanum (alcohol and opium, a common drug of the time) before removing a bullet.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperados is a rip-roaring Wild West mystery that combines lively historical detail with a Monty Python-like sensibility. It's the first installment in a series starring and narrated by 12-year-old detective P.K. Pinkerton in 19th century boom town Virginia City, Nevada. ("What is it about Virginia City?" P.K. wonders. "The people here either want to kill you or kiss you.") Drunks, grifters, cheaters at cards, opium-smoking prostitutes, and violent criminals abound; young reporter Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) is a recurring character. P.K. spends the whole story dodging the deadly desperados who want to kill him, including one called Whittlin' Walt because he slowly carves up his victims while quoting Walt Whitman. Violence is almost constant: There's gunplay galore, a prostitute has her throat cut, P.K.'s birth and foster parents are massacred in separate incidents. The story also includes lots of theft, petty crime, drinking, and drug use (mostly by adults), and racial discrimination. All this is seen through the eyes of P.K., a half-Lakota kid on the autism spectrum, which makes him chronically unable to interpret the intentions of people around him. Like Huck Finn, he's trying to make sense of an insane world, survive, and do the right thing. While our hero normally dresses as a boy, author Caroline Lawrence works hard to confuse the issue of P.K.'s actual gender: a master of disguise, P.K. also makes a very fetching girl, and, depending on the attire of the moment, is pursued by both boys and girls seeking kisses. Parents may want to read the novel first before deciding whether it's right for their particular kid. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byLTD4288 June 14, 2015

Hilarious, with lots of violence ( what can you expect from a Wild West Civil War-era book) and a smattering of gore

This book is highly educational, as you get to see the world through the eyes of 12-year-old P.K.Pinkerton. One of his penchants in "his" writing is... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old January 26, 2015
parents need to know that there is a lot of gambling and not very graphicly described gore: scalping s and shootings. But is set in the 19th century. There
is a... Continue reading

What's the story?

On his 12th birthday in 19th-century Nevada, P.K. Pinkerton arrives home to find his foster parents, a Methodist minister and his wife, mutilated and murdered in the kitchen. With her dying breaths, his foster mom warns that the murderers want something P.K.'s Lakota birth mother left him, and will soon return. P.K. flees to Virginia City, home to much sex, drugs, and violence at the height of the Comstock Lode silver mania. There he meets con men, thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, Chinese laundry operators, and assorted other colorful characters, while dodging Whittlin' Walt and the other outlaws who want to murder him.

Is it any good?

This weird, exciting, and funny Wild West mystery isn't for every kid, but will be irresistible to many. Author Caroline Lawrence (born in Bakersfield, California, and now living in London) previously wrote a bestselling mystery series set in ancient Rome that became a BBC TV series, she clearly has a near-gleeful fondness for historical detail and finds plenty of creative ways to present it in P.K. PINKERTON AND THE DEADLY DESPERADOS. She also creates a distinctive character and narrative voice in P.K.

While the historically accurate setting and Lawrence's narrative skill will give readers an unusually vivid, personal -- and memorable -- knowledge of the period, parents will need to decide whether it's appropriate for their kids, as drunkenness, opium addiction, robbery, brawling, racial discrimination, prostitution, and murder are regular features.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories about the Wild West have been so popular for more than a century. How do the story, setting, and characters of The Case of the Deadly Desperados compare with other Westerns you know?

  • P.K. can't tell what people are really thinking from their facial expressions. Do you sometimes have trouble knowing whether someone's telling you the truth or trying to mislead you? What clues can you use to help figure it out?

  • Why do you think the boomtown atmosphere of Virginia City leads to so much bad behavior? Do you see similar things happening today? Where?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate