Although I had heard of this book via a mailing from The Fiction Desk, it wasn’t until it was recommended to me by my crime-loving chef mate, Tony Tobin that my ears pricked up… Tony and I have similar tastes in books and he told me that this one was a corker… he also gave it to me as a gift when I visited him his restaurant after finishing the first draft of my own first novel, so it has a bit of sentimental value too (thanks Tony!)
Blurb: After six years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, that irrepressible thief, the Artful Dodger, arrives back in London intent on returning to his old life and old ways – only to find himself in a changed city with his father-figure Fagin hanged, his family of brother thieves dispersed and police on every corner. Tasked to find a hidden jewel, Dodger leaves no stone unturned, no pocket unpicked as he tracks down former friends, flames and enemies, and uncovers a dark secret in his old life. From the rooftops to the sewers of Dickensian London, Dodger must confront a painful past and a dangerous present if he’s to have any chance of living to see a future…
I admit it was with slight trepidation that I started to read. I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, and I’m not even sure I have read Oliver Twist (unless it was at school, a long time ago), but of course I know it from the many film and TV adaptations – and of course I was interested in what had become of the Dickensian gang.
But it didn’t take long for the doubts to disappear and for the book to become completely unputdownable. Benmore has done a lot of research for this book (see here for inspirations) and it really paid off. 19th century London is evocatively portrayed – the sights, smells and the people coming alive on the page and drawing you in. The characterisation is just fantastic. To take on someone else’s creation(s) is not an easy task – there is the responsibility of staying true to the the creator, but also the desire to lead them into new situations and see how they react.
Dodger is back from the penal colony with a slightly suspicious sounding pardon from the Governor of Australia, with an aboriginal man called Warrigal in tow, who he tells everyone is his valet called Peter Cole (who causes more than a few raised eyebrows in 1850s London). The pair have money, and a mission, and yet they are barely off the boat when Dodger is up to his old tricks, trying to charm a young lady out of her expensive engagement ring, and drawing unwanted attention from a policeman from the new breed of ‘Peelers’ who are trying to clean up London’s underworld.
Their mission – to find a mysterious jewel – brings him back into the arms of his old cronies, yet nothing is as it was before – where Dodger was ‘top sawyer’ – the king of the pickpockets. Jem is in charge now, and he’s moved on to burglary… with murderous consequences.
The plot twists and turns brilliantly, with many well thought out surprises along the way; and the ending is quite unexpected, yet startlingly obvious in a way that makes you want to read it again immediately to pick up all the clues.
Dodger himself is drawn brilliantly. The language is full of humour and colour, and at times I could hear him talking in my head, sounding a bit like Russell Brand… which was no bad thing 🙂 The cheeky charm is something that transcends time, and Dodger’s world is one that you can’t help but be absorbed into.
I can’t wait to find out what he gets up to next.