The Ragtime Kid
by Larry Karp
Published by Poisoned Pen Press
276 pages, 2006
The Sedalia Two-Step
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
If you were obsessed with ragtime music in late-19th-century America, then Sedalia, Missouri, was certainly the place to be. The historical record makes that clear, and now Larry Karp (First, Do No Harm) has brought us a mystery taking place in that cauldron of syncopation and postwar racism.
The Ragtime Kid is the story of Brun Campbell, a 15-year-old piano-playing wunderkind. On a restless morning, Brun and his best friend hop a train from their home in El Reno, Oklahoma. While wandering the state fair in Oklahoma City, Brun hears the siren call that will change his life. He wanders into a music store where a tin phonograph is playing "a snappy two-step," which Brun proceeds to duplicate, note for note, on the store's piano. Standing off to the side and listening with a sense of awe is Otis Saunders, a friend of composer Scott Joplin. Saunders shows Brun the manuscript to Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," which Brun is able to sight-read with precision. From that day forward, Brun realizes that his calling is to play ragtime music.
Brun left that day feeling like he'd walked inside a building, then come back out the same door to find himself standing on a road he wouldn't find on any map, in a world he never knew existed. You might think the beer had something to do with that, and you might wonder if it was just the tobacco the boy smoked with Otis Saunders. But Brun always insisted it was "Maple Leaf Rag" working on him, more powerful by a long shot than any drink or smoke. The notes barreled through his head, rearranged his every thought, made whatever he saw or heard or touched or smelled or tasted seem somehow different.
Being a boy with no future in El Reno, and tied to oafish parents, Brun runs away from home the following year, winding up in Sedalia, where he hopes not only to meet Joplin, but to become his prized piano student. But on the way into town, concealed by the dark of night, Campbell literally stumbles over a dead body left abandoned in a field of overgrown weeds. The victim, a young white woman, was obviously strangled and left to die. Not far from the body Brun sees and pockets a money clip shaped like a lyre.
In short order, Brun manages to secure an audience with Joplin, a job in a local music store owned by a benevolent and highly progressive Civil War veteran, and room and board in the home of a local lawyer. He finds occasional jobs playing raucous tunes in saloons at night. But it's clear that something in Sedalia is quite amiss. White music publishers want to practically steal the rights to Joplin's toe-tapping music, already perceived as being perfect for commercial musical tastes. Racial tensions remain elevated, despite the deference Negroes routinely show the often ignorant and unwashed whites. And Brun finds out that his mentor, Joplin, is having difficulty writing music, at least since he lost one of his prized possessions: a musical lyre money clip. Brun immediately realizes that if Joplin is found to have any connection with a murdered white woman, a lynching party will soon descend upon him.
So begins the ostensible mystery in The Ragtime Kid, Larry Karp's fifth crime novel. Unfortunately for the reader, the mystery element here meanders without much direction through most of the book, until it finally picks up steam in the closing chapters. Indeed, Brun's discovery of the murdered woman in the weeds and his subsequent action in putting the puzzle together is separated by nearly 100 pages. In between those episodes, Karp paints a vivid portrait of Joplin, how perceived big fortunes can make racial tensions accented, and the development of ragtime from a music-hall staple to a serious contribution to American culture.
On this last point, Karp has done an impressive amount of research. The bibliography that closes this novel makes it plain that the author has a love of his material and hasn't resisted doing his homework. Many of the characters in The Ragtime Kid, including Brun and music store owner John Stark, actually existed, and the author succeeds in incorporating copious amounts of source material into his narrative without making it read like a dissertation, which can often be the scourge of historical fiction.
But while The Ragtime Kid drips with period authenticity, its mostly stock characters never manage to leap off the page. Brun Campbell displays a power of detection that seems out of place for a boy his age and with his background (not to mention the fact that he seems to know every piece of music ever composed, judging by how often he sits down to play obscure tunes). John Stark, the 60-ish Union veteran who provides the book's moral metronome, has little to do in these pages but snarl at the racist mouth-breathers in the town and act nobly toward everyone else. The main villain is telegraphed to the reader from his first entrance, and many of the other supporting characters tend to blur into each other until they're scarcely distinguishable.
This novel, while impressive in its execution, seems rather at odds with itself. It really comes alive when Joplin is front and center. The composer is depicted as a frustrated genius, unable to convince even his confidants that his ragtime ballet, The Ragtime Dance, deserves to be played in concert halls by the finest symphony orchestras. To Joplin, ragtime is a serious music well deserving of study and execution in the same careful manner as the works of Strauss and Beethoven. But to everyone else, it's merely popular music, suitable for brothel "piano professors" and 5-cent sheet music. Karp portrays Joplin as driven, uncompromising, and every inch the artist. As a study of the creative mind constantly colliding with the need to be respected and adored, The Ragtime Kid succeeds admirably.
All of the necessary elements for crafting a fine mystery exist within the bare-bones plot Karp provides. The racial tension of Sedalia and the lingering resentments over the sacrifices some had to make in the Civil War (both John Stark and his chief antagonist have vivid scars on their psyches) could make for a powerful overlap to a tale of suspense and intrigue.
Sadly, however, by combining these two elements, both are short-changed. The Ragtime Kid suffers from lack of focus and competing agendas. As such, it strikes too many discordant notes. Perhaps on his next outing, Karp can find the chord he's looking for. | November 2006