The RagTime Traveler
A Mystery by Larry & Casey Karp
Poisoned Pen Press (poisonedpenpress.com), $26.95
This pre-publication book review is unusual in that it is on a work of fiction. It is the last of author Larry Karp’s four mystery volumes focused on actual ragtime characters in ragtime related locales. Out of these mysteries Larry’s near definitive biography evolved detailing the life and work of Brunson Campbell, the white “Ragtime Kid” of Joplin lore. In the last two decades since his first mystery, Larry helped popularize ragtime through his writing and his stories are often as historically informative as works of non-fiction. All this has been accomplished through collaboration with his son, Casey Karp.
A fine mystery writer tells a story well. A really fine writer can realistically turn fictional characters into believable personalities and set a story in believable places. If there is a historical element, a fine writer will have carefully and thoroughly researched an era and location so well that even an authority on the subject will fail to find flaws. A great writer does all this and weaves fictional elements into real time and place, historical or contemporary, so seamlessly that the reader has the illusion of enjoying a fascinating real life story.
Larry Karp was just such a gifted story teller and researcher. He was also a knowledgeable ragtime aficionado and meticulous historical researcher. In The RagTime Traveler, the fourth novel in his ragtime mystery quartet, he nicely intertwines his story through time in contemporary and historical Sedalia and Kansas City, Missouri. His characters interact with current and historical personalities so well as to cause readers to forget they are reading a fabricated work.
In the story, Alan Chandler is an esteemed, sixty-year professional ragtime pianist who is also a well-known authority and historian of syncopated music. I find this character to be a fictional composite of several contemporary ragtime performers and authorities including Larry Karp, himself.
The author, like his character Alan Chandler, was afflicted with terminal cancer and sadly, Larry passed away in October, 2016. His son and writing colleague capably edited his father’s work, contributed to the story, and competently completed the manuscript. The collaboration between father and son has produced a unified narrative and the story is enhanced by the contributions of both men.
The mystery involves a recent discovery and then loss of Wilber Sweatman’s duffel bag of old Scott Joplin manuscript compositions. The historical intrigue surrounding the possession and actual ownership of the now unknown documents over the years is the back story to the mystery. Two men were murdered over these incredibly valuable properties and Karp brings back Alan and Miriam Chandler who were teenagers in his third novel, The Ragtime Fool, to do the sleuthing and attempt to secure Joplin’s music. The terminally ill Chandler along with his wife, grandson Tom, and two young Sedalia friends provide most of the action.
The Karps added another wonderful element to this mystery by injecting Alan’s time travel back to 1899 Sedalia and his conversations with the ragtime personalities of that era at the Maple Leaf Club. Chandler moves quite naturally from past to present through the book. The meeting with Scott Joplin affords the writers an opportunity to give us a dimensional description of the ragtime genius and an interpretative but informed insight into his personality.
Cleverly, the authors titillate reader imaginations by leaving open the possibility that this may indeed be an extra-normal phenomenon or only the chemo-hallucinations resulting from Alan Chandler’s cancer treatments.
The mystery is ultimately solved as the intrepid cast of characters travel from Seattle to Sedalia to Kansas City and all learn from Alan’s time travel experiences. The double entendre of The RagTime Traveler cleverly and aptly titles the story.
I am personally acquainted with the ragtime history related to this mystery and with modern Sedalia and Kansas City. The Karps’ acknowledged resource consultants served them well and I found myself in familiar surroundings as I read. These mysteries provide readers with lively action and suspense and are collectively also a marvelous history of Sedalia and the classic ragtime composers of the 1890’s. Few art and humanity fields have their heritage so well and accurately chronicled.
This may well be the last ragtime related mystery from a Karp pen. However, I suspect Casey Karp will pursue his own interests, as his father did, and give us even more wonderful volumes of his own creation to enjoy.
The RagTime Traveler is scheduled for pre-release during the May 31 to June 3, 2017 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia by the Poisoned Pen Press and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or through wholesale outlets. —Larry Melton
Larry Melton was a former Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager and a founder of the Scott Joplin Festival in 1974. He is now a retired community college history teacher and volunteer archivist for the Sedalia Heritage Foundation’s Ragtime Archive Project.
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