The Ragtime Kid
Fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell hears Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, then runs off from his home in Oklahoma to take piano lessons from Joplin in Sedalia, Missouri. Coming into town late at night, Brun finds the body of a young woman by the side of the road, panics, thoughtlessly pockets a couple of clues, and runs off. Next day, he locates Joplin and persuades him to be his piano teacher, and then finds work with John Stark, the 58-year-old owner of a music store.

When a kindly southern gentleman who befriended Brun his first night in town is arrested for the murder of the young woman, Brun is certain he's innocent. But if the boy shows anyone the clues he found with the woman's body, he'll implicate Scott Joplin, and probably himself as well. Those clues become Brun's albatross, spurring him to exonerate his benefactor without putting himself or Joplin into the man's place.

Girls and women are a mystery to Brun, and the behavior of a thirteen-year-old girl with extreme religious conviction, a couple of mischievous prostitutes, and an attractive young woman with ambitions and a hint of scarlet in her past complicate Brun's pursuit of the killer. Eventually, the boy gets in over his head, and John Stark decides to set aside his age and respectable position in town to join forces with Brun. But in the end, Walter Overstreet, doctor, mayor, and closet alcoholic, may decide the outcome.

This thought-provoking crime novel, populated by real people and incorporating well-documented historical facts, explores aspects of the legacy of slavery in America which still cuts deep, and cuts both ways.
Read A Review:

With an appealing protagonist, Karp unfolds a fascinating story of a particular moment in history when Scott Joplin was transforming ragtime. Fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell, a natural piano player, discovers Joplin's music and decides that he must study with him. Running away from home to go to Sedalia, Missouri isn't
a problem since life at home isn't that good and he can always earn a living by playing piano in saloons as he has been doing at home.

Of course, tripping over a dead body his first night in town is a different matter. Brun picks up a few items around the dead woman's body that are important, particularly since one of them is Scott Joplin's money clip. Brun's luck changes when Fitzgerald, a nice Southern gentleman, helps him out, and when he gets a job at Stark's music store. Joplin takes him on as a student and all seems well except for an obnoxious music publisher. However, when Fitzgerald is arrested for the woman's murder, Brun is in a quandary about what to do. Clearing Fitzgerald may implicate Joplin. Brun is convinced that neither man is the murderer, and he is determined to find the culprit. Although the guilty party is fairly obvious, the story builds to an exciting conclusion. Karp captures the inherent racism of the times to give the story depth. The Civil War is still a reality in the lives of those who fought in it by the turn of the century. Karp recreates the time vividly for the reader. The characters are complex and appealing. Brun and America are changing at the same time. Both are growing up and both are filled with potential.

Sally Sugarman, Deadly Pleasures. Rating: A

In the last years of the 19th century, the little town of Sedalia, Missouri, was something of a hotbed of ragtime music. Scott Joplin lived and worked there, playing piano in the Maple Leaf Club, and there were many others, living there and passing through, including Otis Saunders, Tom Ireland and Blind Boone. John Stark, not yet a publisher, ran the local music store.

When 15-year-old piano whiz Brun Campbell meets Otis Saunders in Oklahoma City and is introduced to the music of Scott Joplin, he is deeply smitten. Within months, he has left his home and ridden the rails to Sedalia to seek out Joplin so he can learn to play ragtime. On the way, however, he stumbles on the body of a young woman. He first tries to revive her, but once he realizes the situation, he recognizes his own danger as a stranger in town and takes off, pocketing a couple of small items she no longer requires. 

Brun is a smart lad and good-natured, and swiftly finds his feet in his new environment. He gets a job with John Stark, impresses a local saloon keeper with his piano playing, and manages to meet Scott Joplin and persuade him to take on a new pupil.

Things seem to be going well, but then a courtly and rather ineffectual gentleman who helped Brun on his first arrival in town is arrested for the murder of the young woman. Brun is sure he didn't do it; he also realizes he has information that would point the investigation in another direction, but that direction would be straight at Scott Joplin. Deeply troubled, he sets out to uncover what he can and feel his way to a solution. 

This is a very lively book; it is well set in its period, with intriguing characters and a compelling story. The tenor of the times, the buoyant boosterism, the pervasive racism, the veneer of morality, are strongly
portrayed. Many of the characters are real people -- the author includes a very useful afterword discussing what in the book is historical fact and what invention. I was interested to learn that Brun Campbell himself was a real person.

The storytelling is particularly adept. Young Brun's experiences and the life and events in Sedalia are so rich a story in themselves that at first the mystery aspect seems just one small thread among many. Only gradually does it seep into the fabric of the tale, overtaking everybody's preoccupations and shouldering itself to the centre of things in the way that disasters insist on doing. RAGTIME KID is very well done.

Diana Sandberg,

Once upon a time, ragtime composer Scott Joplin signed a contract with publisher John Stark. There were several remarkable aspects about this: Joplin was black, Stark was white, Joplin received payment, the publication considerably helped advance the domination of ragtime music across America, and Joplin became a
household name. The year was 1899, and both Joplin and Stark were fairly unknown before this momentous event.

According to Larry Karp, this was the circumstance that brought about his interest in turn-of-the-century Sedalia, Missouri. Like so many of us who have been documenting this period, Karp recognized its truly important musical and social significance. Unlike most of us, he was inspired to write his next mystery novel, based not just on that one historical event, but including a few more actual characters from the time and some fictional ones. Thus was born The Ragtime Kid, the title referring to the nickname of Joplin's friend, Brun
Campbell, another composer-pianist who is the central character of the story.

Aside from a couple of children's histories of ragtime and Joplin, which tend toward storytelling and playful tinkering with facts to keep the interest of young readers, most of the serious books about this music and the composers have at least tried to sort fact from fiction, and they certainly don't strive to be works of fiction as such. Karp took the other road, making up much of the details for his completely original murder plot, and along the way highlighted some of the truths of the times – racism, back-door business dealings, and some
generally known circumstances about the relationships between a few of the musical figures. Among the most interesting interweaving of these threads is the back-story on John Stark, relating him to some speculative yet interesting Civil War history.

Stark's office is a principal location for the action, and it made for imaginative use of the typical scene in such a place – the sheet music and instruments, "song plugging" at the piano, the customers (both wanted and
unwanted), Stark's family, town politics and more. The entire setting of Sedalia was fairly true to the actual layout. I have walked the town many times, and I found the descriptions of buildings and street life as Karp imagines it over a hundred years ago to be quite convincing.

I'll not detail the crime scene or the circumstances, but the experienced reader of American mysteries will recognize some of the techniques of plotting and characterization. The real interest for those even barely familiar with ragtime history is to discover how our precious stories of Joplin and Campbell as we know them become part of the background and the action. Perhaps the reader can make this a slightly more interactive event by throwing on some recordings (especially older ones) while reading.

I think readers of the RAG will be surprised at how all their dedicated support of today's ragtimers, reverence to the early years' composers, and sense of participation in the rediscovery of ragtime will be enhanced by taking a bit of time out to let some fiction play around with their academic and historic mind. For readers who are entering the ragtime world through this alternate route, there is a very helpful bibliography at the back of the book outlining further reading on ragtime history, slavery, period music and documented research on
life in Sedalia.

I do cringe a little when I think of the inevitable moment in a future interview when some young ragtimer will, with the best of intentions, quote a bit of "history" to me that actually was a fictionalized moment in The Ragtime Kid. I can handle that. I hope other creative writers will be inspired to dig into this rich history and show us imaginative alternative worlds. For the moment, just recall how many published works of fiction are based on almost any other kind of music you can think of (hundreds?) Now consider the number based primarily on ragtime (three? four?). Yes, another measure of ragtime's place in the world. Thank you, Larry Karp, for taking an interest.

David Reffkin, Mississippi Rag