Review Blog

Feb 09 2010

Barnaby Grimes: Phantom of Blood Alley by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

cover image

Corgi Books,2010.
(Ages 10+) Recommended. Set in Dickensian England, this is the fourth outing for the Barnaby Grimes series, although each novel can be read independently as regular characters are reintroduced. Barnaby is a tick-tock lad; he delivers anything to anyone and knows the city streets like the back of his hand, although his preferred mode of travel is to 'highstack'; to scramble across the rooftops and avoid the bustle below. As a sideline Barnaby investigates mysteries and is invited by Clarissa Oliphant to discover the explanation for her brother's increasingly secretive and bizarre behaviour.
Barnaby's investigations lead him into the embryonic world of photography and when Laurence Oliphant is found dead, his sister, Clarissa is charged with murder. But then Laurence's associates begin to meet with gruesome deaths and Barnaby closes in on the shadowy Phantom of Blood Alley.
This is a terrific gothic romp, full of creaking floorboards, spectral figures and housemaids screaming in terror. The look of the novel; large print, short chapters and plenty of illustrations belie its contents. Stewart and Riddell offer a heady feast of language that makes no allowances for fledgling readers. Any writers who can use the words 'arcane', 'occult', 'infernal' and 'alchemy' in one sentence are expressing high expectations of their young readers. I'm all for that as it's wonderful to see children immersed in powerful language, but I would hate newly independent readers to be put off because someone decides this looks like an 'easy' read!
With a marvellous setting (who can resist Caged Lark Lane and Cold Bath Road?) and gruesome details of murder and mayhem, this story seethes with atmosphere and is not for the faint hearted. For all those children who clamour for stories oozing horror and gore this is absolutely perfect!
Claire Larson

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