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The Ragtime Kid

by Larry Karp

      When fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell hears Scott Joplinís Maple Leaf Rag at the fair in Oklahoma City it changes his life. All he wants to do is play real colored ragtime, but nobody in El Reno wants to teach him. Farm work is not for him, so he runs away to Sedalia to persuade Scott Joplin to take him on as a student. But on the way there, he discovers the murdered body of a young woman, and he takes two things from her and later wishes he had left well enough alone. In Sedalia he finds his dreams, and a whole lot of nightmares to go with them.

You donít need to enjoy whodunits to enjoy this book. For the first half at least, the crime is so far in the back that it might never have happened: but just when I was wondering why the author decided to write a crime novel, it all comes rising up again. It is also true to say that this book would stand up without the murders, as it is a largely biographical tale about more real people than invented ones. This is a book to read slowly, so you can savor the tangible reconstruction of Sedalia in 1899, with its bars, whorehouses, hopes for the future and the terrible legacy of the Civil War.

Perhaps even more than a snapshot of a city, this is a novel about race relations (or lack of them), and the tinderbox atmosphere of Sedalia as the novel builds to its crescendo. This is a time only just beyond living memory, but this is a time of lynchings and riots, a time when black people were free but barely regarded as human by a large number of people. But it is also a picture of a small group of people who were making something (ie. ragtime) that white folk wanted a piece of, too. This is not the start of a series, and anybody who thinks that genre fiction is too lowbrow ought to read this. The Ragtime Kid is surely more a mainstream book, and one which is going to not only appeal to a large number of people, but has the ability to stay in the mind long after. Very highly recommended.

The Book

Poisoned Pen Press
November 2006
Historical Crime - 1898-99, Sedalia, Missouri
More at
NOTE: Some violence

The Reviewer

Rachel A Hyde
Reviewed 2006
© 2006