The text was first published in the UK in 1994 as two separate books: Thunderbolt’s Waxwork and The Gas-Fitters Ball, and this newly published version includes both stories, making them available to a US audience for the first time. The stories recount the adventures of the daring boys and girls of the New Cut Gang, a group of late 19th century London kids who manage to solve a couple of mysteries with a bit of derring-do, some funny misadventures, and a whole lot of cor-blimey love-a-duck heart.
Okay, so that Dick Van Dyke sampling of London English is completely unfair of me, as I suspect Philip Pullman would bite through his own pen rather than write such a hackneyed cliché -- yet there is a fair bit of dialect in the book. Characters say “et” for “ate,” “gorn” for “gone,” “yer” for “your,” and so on. Happily, it never gets in the way. Just the opposite, really – the (mis)spellings in the dialogue create a strong sense of place and time that adds to the book’s charm.
Martin Brown’s line drawings are simple, but funny, and add a touch of whimsy to the book. The stories themselves are fairly whimsical as well. Without trying to recount the (quite complex) plots, at various points these intrepid kids make a waxwork dummy and try to sneak it into a local museum; invite the Prince of Wales to a dance; track down an incriminating Swedish match and, not incidentally, solve a couple of quite serious crimes. Philip Pullman really is a quite extraordinary writer. His plots are inventive, his characters unique and believable, and his settings richly detailed.
If I were to mutter anything critical at all, it would be that in both cases, the stories start off a little slowly. My pre-existing love for all things Pullman ensured that I would persevere come what may, but another reader might not press on, and that would be a shame. So it may be that these books will find a ready readership among slightly older children, but they would make superb read-alouds as well, and would give parents and children a chance to talk about those many historical elements modern kids might not be familiar with.
Satisfyingly complex plots