The Clockwork Three

Style: Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: Simple adventure story with slight touches of the supernatural: an apparently serious séance; a clockwork man animated by Golem clay. Supportive friendship between three youngsters. Violent behaviour from a cruel Fagin-like character and others. Positive, if generic, representation of a Christian pastor. Genuine respect and affection between an elderly master and his young apprentice. Some theft by young people.

Cover of The Clockwork Three

Author: Matthew J. Kirby

Publisher: Scholastic

Published in: 2010

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Early 20th C

Genres:  AdventureFriendshipMagic


  • Hannah is a young woman whose hardworking father has had a stroke, leaving her family in very reduced circumstances. She takes a lowly job in the hotel where her father used to work as mastermason, forgoing school and providing all the family’s income.
  • Giuseppe was taken by his uncle from his Italian home and sold to a cruel Fagin-like “padrone” as one of a gang of urchins who busk and steal for him. He finds a green violin which seems to offer him a way back home but which ultimately draws him into deeper trouble.
  • Frederick is an apprentice clockmaker, left at an Orphanage by his dying mother. He’s sold by the greedy Orphanage mistress to the kindly and elderly Master Branch. Believing that his master doesn’t recognise his talents, he works secretly on a clockwork figure to prove his skill.


Three youngsters become involved in each others’ affairs by accident and help each other out in their overlapping problems. Giuseppe, hoping to escape from his life as a busker controlled by the cruel Stephano, finds comfort in the Old Rock church and its pastor, Reverend Grey. He comes across a special violin and hides it in the churchyard along with the extra money he earns by playing it. Betrayed by one of the younger boys, he goes on the run from Stephano, turning to Hannah and Frederick for help. Hannah’s father, a master-mason, has suffered a stroke before the story begins, and Hannah works as a hotel maid to earn enough to keep the family while her mother has to care for her husband and two younger daughters. She is taken under the wing of a rich hotel guest but, in desperate need for money for medicine, is caught stealing a diamond necklace. Convinced of a treasure hidden in the nearby Park, she hides out there where she encounters Giuseppe who is being sheltered by Alice, a gardener, and Pullman, a woodsman. Frederick is in a better situation, apprenticed to a kindly Master, but works secretly on a clockwork automaton in the hope that it will win him his journeymanship. When his Master is commissioned to make a clockwork device by Hannah’s rich protectress, he finds himself attracted to the young girl and together they help Giuseppe when he is on the run.


The Clockwork Three has the feel of a first book. The writing gives the impression that the author is wearing new shoes and hasn’t yet found a position he’s comfortable with. And the sheer quantity of themes running through the story is as if he’s held all these characters and subplots in check for years until he can find a story worthy of them. Together these things give the book a fresh, less sophisticated feel which fits quite nicely with its simpler characters.

And it’s the characters which really pull the book along. True, there are plots and crossplots and subplots. But they’re not so interesting as the actors who bring them to life. While several of the supporting characters are more or less stereotypes – the greedy and vicious workhouse owner; the woodwise old woman with her herbs and simples; the Fagin-like Stephano – the three main characters, children on the verge of adulthood, are more like archetypes.

Italian Giuseppe is the Artist, sensitive and passionate, desperate to return home to his family in the Italian hills. Germanic Frederick is the Thinker and inventor, always wanting to make things work, kind but absent-minded when absorbed in a project. And Hannah is the Woman, working to keep her family together, prepared to take any risk for those she loves. Each of them has a life and a story apart from this story, but they are the ones which take this story forward.

Giuseppe’s and Frederick’s backgrounds are similar: handed over by their parents to a demanding overseer, Frederick out of necessity, Giuseppe for money. From there, though, their fortunes differ. Frederick is lucky enough to be noticed by a clockmaker who takes him on as apprentice; Giuseppe remains in the clutches of Stephano, forced to hand over his busking earnings in exchange for shelter and a minimum of food in a dog-eat-dog rookery. Hannah’s family had been in better circumstances when their father was a respected master-mason. After his stroke, though, they’re almost destitute and Hannah has to work in a hotel, loving the family she’s forced to provide for, while partly resenting them for taking her away from school and into hard service.

Hannah is taken under the wing of a colourful hotel resident, Madame Pomeroy who treats her well and who commissions a clockwork device from Frederick’s master on the understanding that Frederick himself will work on it. Recognising the attraction between Hannah & Frederick, Madame Pomeroy arranges for them to go to the Opera together. She is a larger-than-life character who appears also to be a medium. Certainly she describes herself as one who communicates with the dead, attempts to tell Hannah’s fortune with a pack of cards, and is observed later in a séance channelling a dead spirit.

Other supernatural elements in the story come from Giuseppe’s violin and Frederick’s automaton. The story opens with Giuseppe finding the violin when beachcombing after a wreck, but its origin and powers remains unresolved at the end. It has an uncanny ability to get through to peoples’ feelings and to and set them dancing. Frederick’s automaton is a clockwork man, not unlike that in The Invention of Hugo Cabret with one difference: when Hannah places in its chest a piece of Golem clay, it acquires a life of its own. In fact, only the body is of Frederick’s making; the head is the fabled head said to have belonged to Albertus Magnus and to answer any question. Giuseppe catches sight of it in a museum store when running away from some young thugs and tells Frederick where it is.

Which bring us to the question of the thefts carried out by the youngsters. Hannah and Frederick both steal things, Hannah out of desperation (although also out of character at that moment), Frederick more deliberately, driven by his desire to complete his automaton.

The author racks up the difficulties facing Hannah: her critically ill father; the cost of the medicine; the apparent rejection and then betrayal by Madame Pomeroy. All this and you still can’t really believe that Hannah would go to the lengths of stealing a diamond necklace. Not least because, as another character later points out, she’d have no hope of selling it without raising the alarm.

Frederick’s in a different situation. The first time we meet him, he’s stealing a coal-chute to use as part of his automaton – a project he’s concealing from his kindly master. Later he breaks into a museum storeroom with the others to retrieve the Albertus Magnus head. The first occasion goes unnoticed and unpunished throughout. On the second occasion he is chased by the museum owner and his henchmen who seem to have a legitimate claim. They are turned away by Frederick’s unwitting master who believes that he has been home all night. Later, when forced into it, Frederick does admit everything to his master who, rather surprisingly, undertakes to return the Head. Frederick avoids punishment thanks to some political manoeuvring by his master within the Clockmaker’s Guild.

Since, by and large, the children are presented as generous, hard-working, kind, friendly and otherwise fairly virtuous, this aspect of the story is a slightly surprising departure. Ironically, the only one of the youngsters who might have a claim to steal simply to feed himself is Giuseppe. And he doesn’t.

The quality of one’s work is present throughout. Giuseppe is Stephano’s best musician, and while the green violin he finds adds an unexpected quality to his music, it’s his own skill which plays the instrument. Hannah’s father was a master mason and the hotel’s owner entrusted him alone with certain pieces of work which still bear his trademark leaf. These motifs remind Hannah of her father’s qualities whenever she encounters them. Frederick works hard for his master, and for himself, albeit clandestinely. Hannah herself is a hardworking hotel maid. And these qualities are ultimately rewarded by the story’s dénouement. Of course, this story is set in an early 20th century milieu, where a work ethic was in any case more prevalent. It would be nice to see the same attitudes prevail in a more modern setting.

The Church, or at least a Church, gets a fairly positive showing. The Old Rock church and its pastor, the Reverend Grey, offer shelter and support to Giuseppe in particular. And the elderly pastor shows surprising spirit in the face of threats by Stephano and his thugs. He’s even the catalyst for a disavowal by the city authorities of the network of Padrones. Ultimately, though, there’s no real sense of religion about the place, no mention of God. The church might as well have been, say, a Community Shelter project, and its pastor an older teacher.

Other ideas the story deals with include the balance of the natural and the man-made within a city; the need to exercise one’s conscience when administering the terms of a will; the realism of Operatic plots; the strength of apparently frail older men; and the budding and delicate relationship between Frederick and Hannah.

The story does end up a little cluttered, possibly because the author couldn’t bear to miss out any of his good ideas. True, additional details and backstories can add depth to a book. But somehow, the nonessential elements here leave the reader with the impression of a scattering of interesting images across the foreground of the story rather than an increased depth of field.

In summary: engaging characters bring the story to life within an interesting, if slightly cluttered, world. I’d certainly pick up anything else this author produces in the future.

Friday 4th November 2011