Mystery on the Comstock

While it might seem that Guy Rocha, McAvoy Layne and Virginia City's most colorful character, Stink E, have little in common, meeting all three men on a recent visit to the area was instrumental in persuading London author Caroline Lawrence to set her latest mystery series on the Comstock.

"The 1860s in the Comstock was the most politically incorrect place in the world," Lawrence said last week in an interview from her home in London. "They had smoking, alcohol, prostitution, racism, gambling, gunfighters, opium and newspapermen. It made ancient Rome look like a vicar's tea party."

Lawrence has a bachelor of arts degree in the classics from the University of California at Berkeley, and was a schoolmarm for 10 years in London.

Then, in 2001, she started writing history-mystery stories for kids and gained fame for her 21-book series, the Roman Mysteries, which recently was turned into a television series for the BBC.

Her newest challenge is bringing the early years of the Comstock Lode to life in a series of children's detective novels, the Western Mysteries series. The books are aimed at children ages 9 and older and contain a mixture of fact and fiction, made-up characters and real people, including a 25-year-old Territorial Enterprise newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens.

"The Case of the Deadly Desperados" was published by Putnam Books for Young Readers on Feb. 16.

"In the book, the protagonist, a 12-year-old detective, is chased into the lower levels of the Mexican mine by an outlaw group intent on capturing a deed to valuable Virginia City mining property. The child detective must outwit the outlaws in a charming chase, which involves real-life writers Sam Clemens and Dan DeQuille," she said. "The story is told in the first person, and it is unknown whether the character is male or female."

Lawrence will be in Northern Nevada at the end of April for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Genoa, where she will give a presentation, "PK Private Investigator - A New Western Hero for Kids?" about her book's 12-year-old detective. Her presentation will be from 3 to 4 p.m. April 27 in the Genoa Mason's Hall. Cost is $15 for a day pass to all workshops. The following day, she will sign books and meet guests from noon to 2 p.m. at the Mark Twain Bookstore on C Street in historic Virginia City. Proprietors of the B Street Bed and Breakfast will serve light refreshements for the book-signing.

Lawrence grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and claims that some of her ancestors were pioneers, teamsters, newspapermen and Mormons.

Her great-great-grandmother Corinne Prince was born in Battle Mountain and lived in Sutro, near Dayton.

When Lawrence first came to Northern Nevada several years ago to do research for her series, she stayed at the B Street B&B, where she became fast friends with proprietor Carolyn Eichen, an expert in Nevada history.

"Now she's my mentor," Lawrence said.

She also has had occasion to meet one of Virginia City's tourist attractions, Stink E, a grisly-looking old miner who can be seen most weekends wearing red long underwear around town, walking his mule.

"I also discovered the Genoa cowboy festival, the state archives, and I met (former state archivist) Guy Rocha. I've also met McAvoy Layne," who portrays Mark Twain at regional events, she said. "I knew this would be the perfect setting."

Her second book, "The Case of the Petrified Man," comes out next month, and the third, "The Case of the Pistol-Packing Widow," will be out the first part of next year.

"These aren't your ordinary dime novels," Lawrence said. "These books do not have a square-jawed cowboy and his faithful steed. Good does not always triumph, and a bullet does not kill instantly - or sometimes at all. These are stories of prospectors, miners, actresses, saloonkeepers, gamblers, hurdy-girls, desperados and - the worst of the lot - newspapermen."


What: Caroline Lawrence's Cowboy Poetry Gathering presentation, "PK Private Investigator - A New Western Hero for Kids?"

When: 3 to 4 p.m., April 27

Where: Mason's Hall, Genoa

Cost: $15 day pass to all workshops

Details: 775-782-8696

What: Author Caroline Lawrence signing her newest book, "The Case of the Deadly Desperados"

When: Noon-2 p.m., April 28

Where: Mark Twain Book Store, 111 S. C St., Virginia City

Details: 775-847-0454


To learn more about author Caroline Lawrence and her books, go to or


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