It was after three o’clock now and the November dark was descending. You could see the darkness staining the walls of houses, pouring down, creating shadows which unrolled in front of them, pointing the way, leading them on. Their own shadows unfolded, grew monstrous at their sides, strangers to them, sometimes leaning down as if to smother them.
Jones and Scrap led the way, followed by Rogers with his bull’s eye lamp. Dickens, then Stemp. They had passed the burial ground as they had gone through Bones Alley, descending some steps, down which Dickens and Jones had seen the crippled boy disappear, and which Jimmy Brady had pointed out to Scrap. It was as if they had gone down into the underworld. No light came in here. The air was thick and the ground wet. And there was a stench of cess pit. The houses huddled together in the shadow of the taller buildings which imprisoned them.
They moved out of the court into a winding labyrinth of more passages. Scrap stopped at various corners, looking this way and that, getting his bearings. It was odd, thought Dickens. Scrap and Stemp had been right about that unearthly quietness. The alley were narrow and the houses and building loomed over so that it was like walking through tunnels. He noted the crazy leaning buildings and patched windows where sometimes a light flickered. Occasionally, a face appeared pressed up against dirty glass, distorted and flattened like a thing from a nightmare. There was a sense of eyes watching, and sometimes, glancing down an offshoot, he thought he saw a shadow darting – some watcher vanishing into the thick darkness. There was clotting mud beneath their feet and foul vapours seemed to wind round them so that the three figures in front of him seemed to shire and dissolve, and he hurried forward, terrified to lose them, but reassured by the sound of Stemp’s breathing behind him and the little streaks of light that came from Stemp’s bull’s eye lamp.
Deeper and deeper into blackness they went, turning back on themselves. Sometimes it seemed that they were just going round in circles. Every alley looked the same. Dickens fancied that even the grotesque faces were the same. He looked at a doorway and something looked back – a mask with a horrible long nose. He almost cried out. He looked back for Stemp with his light, but there was no light, only darkness and a sense that something had moved behind him. He loosed ahead and though he saw a figure disappearing round a corner. Rogers, surely. He hurried on, his feet sticking and sliding in the treacherous filth. Follow, follow. Which way?
There’s a lot to love about this book and still I was quite disappointed.
Charles Dickens is here presented as a man interested in crime. And he truth, if he never actually helped the police in a true crime, there is evidence that he was really interested in crime and its nature. Briggs gives us many hints into Dickens’s life, and even someone who, like me, doesn’t know much about him, has an opportunity to form a clear idea of the man. He’s depicted as a very passionate and compassionate man. Brigg’s sympathy – I’d even say admiration – is obvious.
Briggs also clearly knows Dickens’s work in depth. There are many mentions of characters and events in Dickens’s novels (especially Oliver Twist and David Copperfield), which seem to merge into the environment the characters of this book live in. It’s like Dickens’s fictional world and the real world he lived in were part one of the others, equally real and meaningful. But there are not only the novels. Dickens’s social work is also mentioned, which I particularly enjoyed. I knew that Dickens was strongly interested in social issues, but here I got the impression he was a true activist, which doesn’t surprise me.
The world Dickens (and his characters) lived in is recreated so vividly and so lively. Briggs describes Victorian London with that ease that comes from long frequentation and keen interest.
The language Briggs chooses for this story is very peculiar, very unusual for our times (the omni narrator is quite telling), and I think this comes form trying to reproduce the Victorian’s language for a modern reader. Which I enjoyed and didn’t find at all confusing, even when the author uses techniques (like head-hopping) that today are frowned upon precisely on the ground that they will confuse the reader.
All these aspects directly connected with Dickens are fantastic. They feel real, accurate and well researched from an enthusiast that loves Dickens and his work.
The rest of the novel, the true mystery, presented far more issues for me.
It’s clear from the beginning that there is a lot going on, which wasn’t really a problem for me. I trusted the author to bring all together in the end.
Sadly, that didn’t quite happened.
There are threads that seem to be very important… but disappear in the folds of the story. While the lives of the different characters are vividly depicted, their importance to the plot often failed me. I got the impression that the large cast of characters really only existed for the sake of it. There are episodes – including one very long that I truly loved – that don’t bear any importance to the core of the mystery, to the point that – once I read the ending – I wondered why so much space and importance was given to it. This happens at both a micro and a macro level, and this more than anything else confused me.
I found the ending extremely unsatisfactory and in some ways completely disconnected with the story narrated throughout the book. Which is truly a shame, because for the most part it was a very good book.
Still, this is my impression. As I said, I acknowledge that there is a lot to love about this book. For some readers, it might me a lot more than what I’ve found.
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