07 January 2016

Scrooge the Detective

The Humbug Murders, L.J. Oliver
Ebenezer Scrooge solves the mystery of who killed his old master, Fezziwig.

Sounds intriguing. I thought so. Bought the book.

Fezziwig comes to Scrooge as a ghost, pleading with him to help his young assistant Tom Guilfoyle, just as a young woman, Adelaide Owen, comes to the counting house to apply, to Scrooge's astonishment, for the clerking job he's advertised. When Scrooge and Adelaide go to Fezziwig's home to see if he is indeed dead, it's revealed that Tom is well known to Adelaide, and that the local constable believes Scrooge himself murdered Fezziwig. Next thing you know, Scrooge is endeavoring to clear himself, with the help of Adelaide and a young reporter named Charles Dickens, in the terrible underbelly of London's slums.

Let's say this is no cozy about Scrooge helping to find a murderer. Before chapter four is over Scrooge has been beaten up by some underworld types and been exposed to a brothel catering to wealthy men. Mixed up in Fezziwig's death is a Chinese merchant, a nobleman, an obese businessman, a well-known actress, aforesaid thugs, and a prostitute named Annie Piper. Along the way we meet a whole contingent of Dickens' characters, including Bill Sykes, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Fagin, a gang of boy thieves, Miss Favisham, John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkle, and Mr. Pickwick, not to mention Dickens himself, and are involved in murder, mutilation, torture, sexual slavery, depravity, drug addiction...this is not a pretty book!

We all know London at the time of Dickens was like this, so the whole thing wouldn't be so bad, wading through the gore and abuse, if the book wasn't full of historical inaccuracies and Scrooge here doesn't jibe with later Scrooge—in fact, this book describes him here, in 1833, as "young Ebenezer" when ten years later in A Christmas Carol, he's suddenly "old Scrooge"—and the modernisms that creep into the text are alarming and often hilarious. The police didn't operate the way the author states, Marley is Scrooge's competitor, not partner, and four years after the first photograph was taken suddenly photos look so good that pornographic ones are being sold to toffs for £40 each. As for the modernisms: Scrooge tells a constable "Cut to the chase," which dates back only to silent movies. A page later he tells the same man, "You have a mind like a steel trap. Anything entering gets crushed and mangled"; "mind like a steel trap" goes back to 1836 but this is a direct quote from later on. On page 51 Scrooge believes he will get "hypothermia" from falling in the Thames and lose "core motor skills." Would a 19th century man have used those terms? On page 75 Dickens refers to the Chinese man as "the Asian." Really? Back then they were "Orientals" or, jocularly, "Celestials," when more crude referrals were not used.

The book is very good describing the sordid London underworld of the 1830s. There are some truly terrifying situations and passages. But as a prequel to the character of Scrooge and A Christmas Carol? I'll say it...humbug!

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