I don’t usually presume to speak for famous authors, let alone one as prestigious as Charles Dickens. In this case, however, I feel justified in saying that Dickens would probably have been very, very pleased with Terry Pratchett’s Dodger.
Pratchett’s reimagining of The Artful Dodger, who appears in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This story is packed with everything I love in a book: a charming, clever scallywag of a main character; a colorful and unforgettable supporting cast; tongue-in-cheek wit; inside jokes that you may only get after reading the book for a second time; and a setting that is so unique and well described that it’s practically a character in its own right.
We first meet our scrappy protagonist when he springs from the London sewers on a stormy night to rescue a young woman being beaten in the street. This feat brings Dodger to the attention of Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew, who happen to be passing by at the time and assist Dodger in taking the unconscious lady to safety.
Dodger, infuriated by the treatment of the beautiful, mysterious girl, refuses to rest until her attackers are brought to justice. Assisted by Dickens and a motley assortment of waifs and urchins, Dodger sets forth to track down the people responsible for the girl’s mistreatment and do whatever it takes to secure her safety.
It’s usually characters that make or break a book for me, but in the case of Dodger it’s actually the setting that made me fall in love. This isn’t to say that Dodger doesn’t have fantastic characters – it does, and I’ll get to them in a minute. However, the setting is so spectacular, so vividly drawn, that it outshines everything else in the book, even its charming hero.
Like Dickens, Pratchett has a gift for bringing 19th-century London, in all its glory and filth, to life on the page. The sounds and smells and tastes of London permeate the book until you can actually hear the coaches rattling by and smell the fog rolling in from the Thames. It’s a world of chimney sweeps and violet sellers, pickpockets and Punch and Judy puppet shows, prostitutes and games of Crown and Anchor at the local pub. There are a million little details that build the “character” of London and enrich the story, from the slang the street urchins use (“cove,” “tosher,” and “Bobbies”/ “Peelers” are a few of my favorites) to descriptions of the weather:
“The rain was falling faster now, rain that was undeniably London rain, already grubby before it hit the ground, putting back on the streets what had been taken away by the chimneys. It tasted like licking a dirty penny.”
Pratchett does more than simply paint a picture of London; he paints it in a way that is insightful and entertaining. Dodger is filled with observations that are as amusing as they are astute, such as this description of the Thames: “[One] could only call what was in the river ‘water’ because it was too runny to be called ‘dirt.” There’s a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, not just in the story itself but also in the helpful and hilarious footnotes that are used to explain certain words and facts within the book.
The setting may be my absolute favorite part of Dodger, but the characters come in at a close second. I’ve always been delighted by crafty, mischievous characters, and Dodger fits the bill perfectly. He’s scrappy, resourceful, and a skillful actor, able to produce tears on demand or charm the pants off of a well-to-do passerby. He’s an all-around fun, hilarious, and wily protagonist, and I couldn’t have loved him more if I tried. Although he’s a little rough around the edges and liable to pick your pocket as soon as look at you, Dodger’s what the folks in this book would call a “decent cove.” He’s always quick to jump to the aid of the defenseless, even if it means donning a dress in order to save a group of young flower girls:
“And so when the sharp-suited gentlemen who liked to go down among the poor flower girls to see if there were any new blossoms they could pluck came to ply them with strong liquor until they could have their wicked way with them, they would actually be subtly directed to the shrinking and simpering violet who was, in fact, Dodger.
Actually, he had to admit that he had been incredibly good at it, because to be a geezer was to be an actor and so Dodger was better at being a shrinking violet than any of the other flower girls who had, how could you put it, better qualifications. He had already sold quite a lot of his violets because his voice hadn’t broken then and he could make himself a real little virgin when he wanted to. After a few hours of this, the girls tipped him off to the whereabouts of a particularly nasty dandy who always hung around the smaller girls, and who was heading towards him with his nice coat and his cane, jingling the money in his pockets. And the street applauded when a suddenly rather athletic little flower girl grabbed the smarmy bastard, punched him, dragged him into an alley and made certain that he would not be able to jingle anything in his pockets for some time to come.”
The secondary characters in Dodger are spectacular as well. Historical figures make cameo appearances, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdetts-Coutts, Robert Peel, and John Tenniel. There’s also a cast of fictional – but no-less-interesting – characters with fun names like Mary-Go-Round, Messy Bessie, and Stumpy Higgins who play small yet memorable roles in the story.
Dodger‘s phenomenal setting and smart, hilarious characters make this book a definite must-read. My enjoyment of this novel grows every time I read it, something I intend to keep doing as often as possible.