Judging by the facia hung over my local Waterstones suggesting I was entering ‘Sinclair’s rather than a book shop, publishers Egmont have put a great deal of faith into author Katherine Woodfine’s debut novel ‘The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.’ Incidentally, Sinclair’s is the fictional departmental store wherein these fictions are set.
No publisher in their right mind would waste red ink on editing the manuscript let alone forking out the money for expensive marketing campaigns if uncertain of the books potential. It is easier these days to sign up a minor celebrity knowing their shallow biography based on a life lived some twenty or so years is guaranteed a return of capital.
In the wake of J.K. Rowing’s phenomenal success all young adult fiction will be judged accordingly. However, such comparison fails here. ‘The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow’ is not in the same mould. It is not fantasy. Better comparison would be the excellent ‘Sally Lockhart’ series by Philip Pullman. What it shares with both is a keen sense of both purpose and fun.
To all intents and purposes this is a romp, a good old fashioned adventure story told in the very best traditions. With a rich cast of characters including central heroine Miss Sophie Taylor who, having lost her father, an officer in the army, finds herself penniless and without a home so has to find not only board and lodging but also employment. Sinclair’s provides the latter, Mrs MacDuff the former. As landladies go, think dragon.
We have the redoubtable Lilian Rose, known as Lil. With enough plumbs in her mouth to fill a fruit bowl yet having more bottle than a public house. Billy Parker, nephew of Sydney Parker the head doorman at Savile’s. Billy has a thirst for adventure with his nose constantly in the pages of ‘Boys of Empire.’ Little does he know when he first befriends Sophie that he is about to have more adventures than he could possibly wish for. There is also ex-gang member Joe. Rough as old boots with a heart of the proverbial. Add a couple of other vital ingredients to the mix like the enigmatic store owner Edward Sinclair, known to his staff as the Captain, a mysterious villain known as The Baron with one of two other worthies tossed in to add flavour and you have a novel that is fun to read.
When Sophie joins Sinclair’s Millinery department the other girls think she is rather posh, a bit up herself, they ridicule and deride her, they make her life hell. Finding Billy quite by accident one day reading his book hidden from the eyes of his uncle, Sophie and Billy soon become friends. Then the beautiful Lil, a dancer by choice and model by necessity, arrives the gang of friends is virtually complete. When Joe joins the cast is set. The four discover a burglary that threatens the lives of all who work at Sinclair’s including themselves. An unashamed thriller loaded with period charm.