Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Jack

Leon Garfield 1968

Another Leon Garfield book, perfectly suited to this crisp Autumn weather.  A bit more wicked than The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris.   Bartholomew Dorking is in London as the apprentice to a draper, but he soon finds himself in the creepy parlor of scheming Mrs. Gordandy with the newly hung body of the scoundrel Black Jack.

"Gobblesshoo for your kind 'eart," she sobbed- and slammed the door in the apprentice's startled face.  The key turned in the lock and Mrs. Gorgandy's footsteps pattered briskly over bare boards and out into the distant street.  As if from another world, he heard her hoarse promise repeated:  "Back in 'alf and hour..."

After a few moments he tried the door.  The lock was secure.  He went to the window- and discovered its cataract of dirt, dust and perished insects obscured three iron bars.  Gloomily he wrote, "Help.  I am a prisoner, " with his finger on the cracked glass.  Then he wrote it backwards in the hope someone in the strange country of the backs of houses and their secret yards might read it and come to his aid.

He went to the fireplace, in whcih there was a pile of ashes- as if a large family had burned their secrets there before going upstairs to hang themselves in a group.  He looked up, and discovered the chimney to be partially blocked by a fall of bricks, two of which so resembled the soles of boots that Dorkling wondered if some previous apprentice had tried to escape that way and failed.

It turns out the villain Black Jack isn't quite dead and he drags the boy along into "a wild story which weaves its turbulent way through the seamiest parts of old London, a traveling circus, and a private madhouse."

Garfield once again creates a brilliant cast of characters- Belle, the simple-minded girl, Dr. Carmody, selling his snake-oil elixir with theatrical flourish, Bartholomew's uncle, the benevolent sea captain he's trying to make his way to, and Mrs. Arbuthnot, always predicting doom in her cards.  And of course the looming Black Jack, a mighty fellow, and rough... as if the Almighty had sketched him out (and left the Devil to fill him in).

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