Knife fights might seem like a quaint way to settle gang spats; they hark back to West Side Story more than The Wire. In Britain, however, knife violence is a seemingly ever-present threat. In 2008, there were a record 277 fatal stabbings. One older murder that still resonates in Britain is the case of Damilola Taylor, a 10-year-old immigrant from Nigeria who bled to death in the stairwell of his southeast London council estate after being stabbed by two 12-year-old boys. It's against this backdrop of explosive juvenile bravado and working-class desperation that Stephen Kelman sets his debut novel, Pigeon English, a book both chilling and charming.
The story opens with the tenants of an apartment complex reacting to the death of one of their residents, a popular, athletic teen boy who was killed for no apparent reason. Harrison (Harri) Opoku, an 11-year-old newly arrived from Ghana, with age-appropriate brio, quickly resolves to solve the murder. "It's a personal mission. The dead boy even told the rogues to leave me alone one time when they were hooting me for wearing ankle-freezers (that's when the legs of your trousers are too short). … He was my first friend who got killed and it hurts too much to forget."
With his friend Dean, Harri is a force to be reckoned with. He discreetly (if inefficiently) interviews suspects, collects fingerprints on cellotape and spies on the local gangs-in-utero, such as the Dell Farm Crew.
Although its subject is ripped from the headlines, Pigeon English is no shock-horror whodunit, but rather a coming-of age tale that feels achingly accurate. At the book's outset, Harri is still very much an innocent boy who thrills in subway rides and letting raindrops fall on his face. But during his investigation, he navigates through that slippery passage between child and adult: finding his way through cliques and peer pressure, exchanging first kisses and learning to take a stand, even if the consequences may be deadly.
In can be difficult to write in the voice of a child without sounding cloying, but the author captures Harri brilliantly, in part because there's plenty of gentle humour. Kelman (neither Ghanaian nor an immigrant, but a former council-estate kid) has a keen sense of the sacred laws of the schoolyard, a few of which show up in Harri's endless lists. "Some rules I have learned from my new school" includes, "The first one to answer the question loves the teacher," and, "Don't swallow the gum or it will get stuck in your guts and you'll die."
Some of the laughs are heartbreaking, however, as result of Harri's naiveté. He never quite grasps the true significance of his aunt Sonia's burned-off fingertips, or the dangerousness of her boyfriend Julius, who carries around a baseball bat nicknamed the Persuader, but no baseball.
Kelman's playfulness extends to his use of language, most obvious in the book's title. A pigeon has never had such a multitude of meanings: It's present in the pidgin Harri speaks, using Ghanaian-English words and phrases "asweh" for "I swear" and "hutious" for "scary," for instance. And, in a way, the pigeons' place in the urban food chain is similar to that of Harri's family and others like them: marginalized and eking out an existence. In the most literal sense, one bird actually serves as a silent mentor figure to Harri, and some chapters even begin from the pigeon's point of view. It's Kelman's least successful conceit, although it might give readers a richer understanding of the term "bird-brained."
But the only truly unsatisfying thing about Pigeon English is that it seems too short. At 263 pages, with bigger-than-average type, it's a quick read, and Harri's voice is silenced too soon while the issues, and the real-life threat, haunt us still.
Inspired by Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, reviewer Rebecca Caldwell had childhood dreams of becoming a detective.
KID STUFF Three young sleuths in recent fiction who captured our imaginations
Christopher Boone The 15-year-old Londoner with Asperger's sets out to discover who murdered his neighbour's dog, only to suss out some family secrets, in Mark Haddon's award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Flavia de Luce Canadian author Alan Bradley's beloved series of novels features the precocious (and proud) 11-year-old amateur sleuth and scientist tackling mysteries from her family's country estate in 1950s England.
Oskar Schell A nine-year-old boy copes with the loss of his father during 9/11 by searching for the owners of a key he found in his parents' closet, in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.