Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out in his debut novel, Pigeon English (which last month landed on the Booker Prize longlist.)
A teenaged boy in his housing project has been knifed, and 11-year-old Harrison Upoku and his friend, Dean, are determined to track down the killer, just like on “C.S.I.” “Dean's the brains because he's seen all the shows,” Harri explains. The two lift fingerprints using Scotch tape and stake out local eateries with Harri's camouflage binoculars. Their investigation gets a dangerous boost when Harri sees someone disposing of what looks like the murder weapon. Kelman, whose bio says he grew up on a council estate, based his acclaimed debut novel on the Damilola Taylor tragedy in Great Britain.
The mystery is secondary to the pleasures of listening to Harri as he prattles on winningly in a mix of street slang and Ghanaian expressions about everything from gummy candy (the cola bottles are the best) to his baby sister, who stayed behind in Ghana with their father and grandmom. As he and his older sister, Lydia, try to navigate the rules of the giant concrete world where they've landed, populated by gangs, drug dealers, alcoholics, and petty thieves, Harri helpfully plays tour guide for the reader. “In England there's a hell of different words for everything. It's for if you forget one, there's always another one left over. It's very helpful.”
Kelman does make a few missteps – most notably a “guardian pigeon” conceit that is wincingly off-key (and helpfully in italics, for readers who wish to avoid the pretentious portentousness). More riveting is the violence surrounding Harri that he only half comprehends, as he, Lydia, their aunt, and mother get sucked into a world of moral compromise.