Peter Dickinson Essay - Dickinson, Peter

Dickinson, Peter


Peter Dickinson 1927–

British novelist, poet, and editor. Dickinson is an eclectic and original writer equally respected for his young adult fantasies and adult mysteries. He expands the limits of both genres, blending his flights of imagination with a strong historical and cultural sensibility and using multiple interests and themes. He often writes from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, emphasizing the importance of custom and ritual. In The Poison Oracle, for example, he creates an imaginary Arabian kingdom which he culturally analyzes in great detail. Dickinson is considered a creator of sophisticated, ingenious mysteries which are full of atmosphere and reflect much research. His first novel, Skin Deep, describes a tribal murder in the heart of London, and sets up several social questions and themes that are detailed in his later novels. It also introduces Inspector Jimmy Pibble, an observant sleuth who idealizes the days of Edwardian rule. Dickinson received the Crime Writer's Association Golden Dagger Award in 1968 for this title, which was published in the United States as The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest, and in 1969 for A Pride of Heroes, published in the United States as The Old English Peep-Show. As a writer for young people, Dickinson achieved immediate success. He published the volumes of his Changes trilogy within months of each other and received much critical affirmation. This fantasy series, considered his most popular work, deals with an imaginary England which has turned against machinery and has regressed to a dark age of superstition. The novels are concerned with human nature under stress and emphasize the necessity of love, understanding, and brotherhood in a world set askew. Dickinson is often praised for his storytelling ability, and for the economy and liveliness of his prose style, due perhaps to his seventeen years as an editor of Punch magazine. He is occasionally criticized for contriving plots for the sake of suspense and for ignoring characterization in favor of extensive background. Some critics feel that Dickinson's books for young people far outshine his adult titles, since he seems to operate best when he takes the child's point of view. Dickinson writes for this audience since "it seems such an obvious thing to do, almost like breathing." For many of his readers, appreciating his varied titles amounts to much the same thing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, and Something about the Author, Vol. 5.)

The Weathermonger [is] a remarkable story which seems at first like an anti-science-fiction novel but which by degrees becomes a fantasy of the Celtic fringe. It all began when Mr. Furbelow, a little chemist from Abergavenny, found Merlin sleeping beneath a rock in the Black Mountains and … woke him up. The mighty spirit of Merlin spreads out over England, turning everything to the likeness of the fifth century.

But all this is at the climax of a masterly story. The country is rescued from the past by an assault force composed of one boy, aged sixteen, and his sister, aged eleven. They escape from ceremonial drowning to a France firmly established in mid-twentieth century. Here a French general, drawn with just the finest touch of irony, briefs them for their forlorn expedition. This, when it comes, is an admirable piece of narrative….

What gives [this story] an individual quality is that, like all the best and only the best fantasies, it is firmly grounded in reality. The reader accepts the huge improbabilities because they are placed in a setting which is consistent and convincing. The author does not attempt to cheat. There are no easy solutions. The children achieve their task not just by luck—although there is an acceptable amount of this—but by courage and resolution, and by Sally's skill in oral Latin.

Above all, this is very good storytelling. The reader—and not only the child reader—is on the edge of his chair with the excitement of the drive across England, and the earthquake in which the nigromancer's dark tower falls, in a night of chaos and terror, is finely described. In face of such convincing writing disbelief is readily suspended.

In the end England returns to rainy skies and the reek of petrol. Was it all worth it? It is an adult's question. Children will be content with a fine tale and a modern world in which to read it.

"The Sleeper Wakes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 14, 1968, p. 257.

N. Danischewsky

[The] first chapter [of The Weathermonger jolts the reader] out of present time and space into a marvellously unpredictable, incredible story; and since he knows no more than the boy Geoffrey knows, he shares Geoffrey's frightening bewilderment at finding himself, without memory of the past five years, on a rock with an unknown girl in Weymouth Harbour…. (p. 143)

The children's escape to France, their superbly funny interview with General Turville, their return to England to find the cause of disruption—"not for France or the world or anything, but just to know", makes a fast-moving, very original story. I imagine it will be most enjoyed by the imaginative child, able to read anything and interested in everything. (pp. 143, 145)

N. Danischewsky, in Children's Book News (copyright © 1968 By Children's Book Centre Ltd.), March-April, 1968.

Whatever the faults of our age there is something very encouraging about the emergence of authors of … quality; surely the children who respond to the intense awareness of life manifested by [Alan] Garner, [William] Mayne, [Philippa] Pearce and now Peter Dickinson will continue to respond more intelligently to both life and literature and will take a livelier interest in the world as a whole? The "better" authors have always appealed primarily to the "better" readers and this situation is unlikely to...

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Allen J. Hubin

The mystery novel without an integrated background is missing a useful dimension; there's the disturbing sense that the action could have taken place anywhere, or at any time. Few mystery writers in recent years have settled their tales in more ingenious environments than Peter Dickinson—who created an entire New Guinean society for his first novel last year ("The Glass-Sided Ant's Nest"). Any minor reservations I had about that book do not apply to his second, "The Old English Peep Show" …, which marks the reappearance of Scotland Yard Superintendent Jimmy Pibble.

Here, Mr. Dickinson turns an irreverent eye toward a pair of doddering British war heroes…. Read this tale carefully. It's a jewel. (p. 34)

Allen J. Hubin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1969.

[In Heartsease] Mr. Dickinson proposes a thought-provoking situation in his story of children living on a Cotswold farm at a time when an extraordinary social revolution has outlawed all machines and the traditions associated with them. While there might be some sense in this, there is less in the extension of the feeling that machines are immoral to the resurrection of suspicions of witchcraft among the less fortunate members of the community who behave oddly or ineffectually. The irrationality of the...

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L. E. Salway

In ["Heartsease"], Mr. Dickinson has returned to the situation which he used so effectively in ["The Weathermonger"]: England in the grip of the ideas and superstitions of the Middle Ages. But although the setting is the same the mood is not and the humour and originality which characterised "The Weathermonger" have been replaced in "Heartsease" by a more serious and straightforward attempt to examine life in a society dominated by fear of machines and adherence to ancient superstition.

The story concerns a group of children who rescue an American spy from death by stoning and smuggle him out of the country. It is an exciting story and Mr. Dickinson tells it well but the plot is less interesting than the background and the characterisation of the children themselves is less effective than that of the adults who are their enemies.

There is no weathermongering and no Merlin in "Heartsease" and the book is less a fantasy than a realistic adventure in an alien setting. Children of ten to twelve will enjoy it as such but admirers of "The Weathermonger" will, I think, be disappointed. (p. 201)

L. E. Salway, in Children's Book News (copyright © 1969 by Children's Book Centre Ltd.), July-August, 1969.

Peter Dickinson has written the best thriller likely to be published this year [with The Sinful Stones]. Is that a rash statement to make in June? Not very. Both his previous books won best-thriller awards and the new one is better still. This Scottish yarn is like a lightweight, well-woven, expertly tailored Harris tweed. To scramble metaphors, the cunning mechanism of the plot purrs like a Rolls, and the writing style is luscious thick Devon cream There's been nothing like it in British mystery fiction since Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin…. [This is a] racing adventure story, spiced with genuine detection and told with rare wit. (p. 25)

The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 The New Republic, Inc.), June 13, 1970.

Margery Fisher

The Devil's children is the third book in which the Changes in a near-future Britain are described through their effect on certain individuals and places. In this book we are at a point not long after the mysterious antipathy towards machines has exposed Britain to a new ideological tyranny. In Shepherds Bush a girl of twelve has been separated from her parents in a panic evacuation of the disease-ridden city. Nicola is adopted by a band of Sikhs looking for somewhere to settle; because of their race they are immune to the Changes and regard Nicola in the light of a "canary" able to warn them of danger…. The progress of the story is a dual one. The journey through Surrey is meticulously plotted and the...

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Allen J. Hubin

If Peter Dickinson's "The Sinful Stones" … had been a first novel, I would have praised it as a rewarding debut of unusual character; but inasmuch as Mr. Dickinson's previous two crime novels (especially the second, "The Old English Peep Show") have disclosed the awesome range of his creativity, my enthusiasm for "Stones" is somewhat muted. It is uncommon of milieu and well peopled, but less than compelling of plot. (p. 41)

Allen J. Hubin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 12, 1970.

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Sara Blackburn

In which one of the perils of series novels is illustrated: James Pibble, the British detective hero of Peter Dickinson's [The Lizard in the Cup], is apparently beloved for his past adventures in previous novels, but the author has forgotten to re-create his character in this current episode, set on a Greek island. We find Pibble reluctantly hard at work there among the highly exotic entourage of Thanassi Thanatos, an Onassis-type zillionaire who is, perhaps, about to be murdered…. Dickinson … weaves all [his] plots and counterplots with skill, and with an obvious passion for his setting, which is lovingly conveyed here. Yet my own response was to sit idly by, enjoying the scene but indifferent as to...

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A. L. Rosenzweig

[The Sinful Stones] has the great virtue of being different, just like Peter Dickinson's two earlier stories featuring Inspector Pibble of New Scotland Yard. And that's rare with a character in a series. In each adventure Pibble's persona grows in the round so that by the opening scenes of his current case the middle-aged cop is engaged in retracing time lost…. The story is laced with mystery and a kind of nostalgia for the Edwardian days which Pibble must re-live to make the present bearable. (p. 15)

A. L. Rosenzweig, in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.), July 19, 1970.

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Margery Fisher

[The] cunning narrative scheme and the peculiarly subtle divulging of the central surprise bring [Emma Tupper's diary] closer to Peter Dickinson's detective stories than to the "Changes" books, Here, it is true, is the same concern for the state of Britain, the same obsession about machines, that have informed all his children's books; man's effect on his environment provides a firm, if implied, moral for an exceptionally exciting story…. Tension and surprise are beautifully managed, in regard to human and extra-human affairs. One can only be thankful for an author who conceives his books for the young on the same grand scale as his adult novels and puts into them ebullient humour and stylishness of...

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Newgate Callendar

In recent years, Peter Dickinson has been attracting attention for a series of low-keyed mysteries written with extraordinary concentration. It is not so much that the man is an unusually fine prose stylist. Even more, he has the ability to suggest, to leave things unsaid, and over his books hangs a suspended cloud that can scare the reader.

Dickinson maintains his high standard in "Sleep and His Brother."…

[Elements in the book include] a Greek billionaire, a pair of doctors with problems of their own, a denouement in which matters are none too satisfactorily settled. The author strings together these various elements like the virtuoso he is, and "Sleep and His Brother" should be...

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Frank Eyre

Peter Dickinson [is] a comparatively new writer whose stories about 'The Changes', a time when men in England had learned to fear and dread machines, and so destroy them, have been one of the most refreshing discoveries of the last few years. (p. 124)

The first of these three books, The Weathermonger, is a straightforward and vividly exciting adventure story. The Changes have only affected Britain; Europe is still as she was, but she cannot mount a rescue expedition because, for reasons which are described with convincing ingenuity, all forms of power fail as the English coast is approached. Two children are found who have been unaffected by the Changes. They are taken to France, given careful...

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Newgate Callendar

Any book in which James Pibble appears is, ipso facto, going to be a good book, and so it is in Peter Dickinson's "The Lizard in the Cup."…

The book is not only a travelogue about one of the Greek islands, and a basic introduction to drug traffic. It is about people. Dickinson is one of the most natural and literate of mystery writers. His people talk as people really talk; they have understandable motivations; and each person emerges as a believable character in his own right. But Dickinson never forgets that he is writing a mystery story. There is plenty of action, and the plotting is impeccable. "The Lizard in the Cup" is Dickinson at his best. If it does not have the macabre terror of...

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Bill Messer

[With The Dancing Bear, the] author shows how individuals adjust in alien surroundings. He also points to the need of adolescents to establish their own identities: the daughter seems happy to adopt Hun society while the slave, trying to decide whether he is merely a thing, or an individual in his own right, accepts the Roman model for its civilized standards. These are important matters. That he uses them as the backbone in an absorbing tale is a measure of the quality of this writer. (pp. 252-53)

Bill Messer, in The School Librarian, September, 1972.

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Paul Heins

A boy, a bear, and a holy man are the three chief characters in [The Dancing Bear], a historical novel set in sixth-century Byzantium…. The author has successfully made use of historical details to further the plot of the story, since a knowledge of the sophisticated civilization of the Byzantines and an insight into the customs and habits of the ancient Slavs and Huns are essential to an understanding of Silvester's experiences. The story itself consists of a series of lively and amusing roadside adventures, but in a larger sense, it is a comedy—the high comedy of Silvester's learning how to value and to accept freedom. Actually, several comedies are enacted at once; for Bubba's antics smack of slapstick...

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Newgate Callendar

What puts "The Poison Oracle" considerably above most books of its kind is its thoroughness of detail. Dickinson, as might be expected from the author of so scary and offbeat a novel as "Sleep and His Brother" … has an unusual kind of mind. He also is a first-rate researcher who seems to know a great deal about Arabic languages, linguistic theory and Arabic customs. Thus "The Poison Oracle" transcends the pure mystery. But between the covers is a classic mystery with a more or less standard denouement except for the chief witness—the most unlikely witness any writer is going to introduce for a long time. (p. 31)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review ©...

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Mary M. Burns

Davy Price [of The Gift] had the unique ability to see other people's thoughts in his own mind…. Past and present, legend and fact are woven into an intricate web of suspense and climax in the psychologically charged confrontation of the boy with a crazed killer whose violent thoughts have been forced into Davy's consciousness. Adult emotions and experiences … are handled subtly and honestly. The author has avoided sensationalism by consistently retaining the perspective of his adolescent protagonist both in dialogue and in narration. Superb touches of humor, contrasting sharply with the gravity of the situations, give depth to the characterizations and balance to the structure without destroying the...

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Jane Abramson

In Dickinson's first-rate novel about second sight, Davy Price has inherited The Gift of clairvoyance from a legendary Welsh ancestor…. [The] gift becomes a terrifying burden when Davy's mind is flooded with the mad imaginings of a half-wit out to destroy the Prices. From Wolf's distorted visions which are masterfully described as Van Gogh-esque nightmares of swirling shapes and overly bright colors, Davy discovers and helps foil a robbery scheme involving his father. Ironically, through his special relation with Wolf, Davy's numbed emotions are awakened and he comes to a fuller understanding of his own family—the tangled relationships between his self-sufficient brother and sister; his parents (a pair of...

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Richard E. Geis

[The Poison Oracle is] a bit of Strange, rather bizarre. Set in Now, in the real world, in which an English psycholinguist is working with a "genius" chimp in animal/human communication while in the employ of an oil-rich Arab ruler at the unique "castle" of the ruler….

The plot—the "suspense"—is more the psycholinguist's survival in the swamp in the clutches of the sacrificial-minded natives than solving the puzzle of who killed the Sulton and how it was done….

What is superb in this book is Dickinson's creation of the marsh people, their complicated society, culture and customs, and their meticulously worked-out language and its effect/link on/with the marsh people....

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John Rowe Townsend

Peter Dickinson's three books about the 'Changes', which cause the people of England to turn against machinery and withdraw into a dark age of malicious ignorance, appeared at almost the same time as [John Christopher's 'White Mountains' trilogy]…. Peter Dickinson is even farther from the SF mainstream than John Christopher. In the first book to appear, [The Weathermonger, Geoffrey] and his sister Sally set off through hostile countryside in a splendid antique Rolls-Royce from the Beaulieu motor museum to find the cause of the Changes. This part of the book is a vivid adventure story, and the passages in which the hero practises his mysterious art of conjuring up a different weather are fine and poetic, but...

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Joanna Hutchison

Peter Dickinson's first three children's books, The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil's Children, form a trilogy. They are all set in a Britain chronologically of the near future yet also of the past, for the 'Changes' have taken place, causing the country to become an island

… fragmented into a series of rural communities, united by a common hostility to machines of any sort and by a tendency to try to return to the modes of living and thought that characterized the Dark Ages….

This basic hypothesis, that Britain has changed in this way, provides the mainspring of the trilogy.

The other two books simply...

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Margery Fisher

The distinction between the three concepts in the title of this fascinating compendium [Chance, Luck and Destiny] is enforced by the story of Oedipus, told in sections and, at first, without identification, with the finding of the exposed infant standing for Chance, his adoption by the childless rulers of Corinth for Luck and the final tragedy for Destiny. Between the several parts of the story of Oedipus lie anecdotes, reflections, examples, statistics…. A curious mixture of guesswork, reason and offhand belief characterises this unusual book, which should by no means be confined to young readers. (pp. 2751-52)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, November,...

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Margery Fisher

Stage properties, the line-drawings at the head of each chapter, scenery, plot and theme of The Blue Hawk, all suggest a very early period of Egyptian culture, but this is not an historical novel. Peter Dickinson leaps still further from any actual historical starting-point than he did from Byzantium in The Dancing Bear. As in that book, he produces an illusion of authenticity while taking freedom to arrange events and choose characters as it suits him. At the same time, the associations with an exotic past that flock into the mind as we read cannot but add to our enjoyment of this complex, circling narrative. (p. 2811)

This is not the first story of the clash between tyranny and...

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David Churchill

Virtually unreviewable is Peter Dickinson's unusual and absorbing book [Chance, Luck and Destiny]. Its four sections, 'Magic and Witchcraft' being added to the three of the title, are anthologies of facts and fictions, unquestionably enhanced by the author's commentary, which never seeks to make mystery where there is none and frequently dismisses fallacy, yet reveals the strangeness of the workings of chance and coincidence in people's lives…. Difficult to evaluate as such a cauldronful of intriguing entertainment may be, it is certainly unlikely to be left unread if placed on the library shelves of any secondary school. (p. 57)

David Churchill, in The School...

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Marcus Crouch

Peter Dickinson is the critic's joy, as well as the child's. Other writers, including the best, settle into a uniform excellence which is wholly to be admired but which scarcely lends itself to individual appreciation.

Mr Dickinson keeps us guessing. Will the next be about a society without machines, or a school of Loch Ness monsters, or the second sight, or the Byzantine Empire? Probably not, for he has had his say on these matters. The Blue Hawk seems to be about Pharaonic Egypt…. A little reflection suggests that this is too facile a view. The sacred river Tan whose waters keep the land fertile may seem like the Nile, but she flows south. Other details are equally disconcerting, and they...

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T. J. Binyon

One of the main differences between the thriller and the detective story proper is that the former demands an open, the latter a closed environment. The classic example of the second is the country-house murder. Peter Dickinson, in a series of highly intelligent novels, has taken this formula and stood it on its head by creating a succession of strange closed societies that are not simply neutral arenas for the conflict between murderer and detective but are fascinating in their own right. In them the crime and its detection are defined by the bizarre environment, and it is probably this which has forced his detective, Jimmy Pibble, most sympathetic of fictional policemen, into premature retirement; the normal...

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Margaret Meek

The great reward of writers for the young is that they are expected to tell stories. The readers look for secondary worlds to find themselves in and the critics examine 'How does the author do it?' The virtues of narrative, response and criticism meet in this remarkable novel [The blue hawk], the story of Tron, the young priest in an Egyptian (?) land where the Gods hold sway and the priests make the rules. Rarely have I read such vividly imagined scenes as that of the dead king's barge floating down the great river and the lifting of an age-old curse. It is a spiritual autobiography, the kind of book written with power and commitment for which no adult outlet exists. I will promote this story with fervour, but...

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Anatole Broyard

In "King and Joker," Peter Dickinson paints an oxzymoronic picture … of an imaginary British royal family….

On a social level, the members of the royal family are rather like high-wire performers in a circus. If they fall, they have so far to go; there is suspense in the spectacle of their keeping their balance.

Disturbing that balance is the purpose of the Joker…. He is bent on proving that the jewels in the crown are false, that nobility is an anachronism, that it would be better if the British public were disillusioned once and for all, disabused of its favorite fairy tale, that old anti-Freudian dream of an ideal father and mother….

"King and Joker" is...

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Peter Hunt

[Annerton Pit] is Peter Dickinson rather below par, with a trendy plot showing the terrible brittleness of the ultra-contemporary. The theme may be eternal—do ends justify means?—but the militant conservationists who blow up motorways and plan to take over an oil rig are a dismally catchpenny collection…. [These] conspirators are a weak pastiche of newspaper realities…. Peter Dickinson has at hand a [rich] and … subtle substructure. The book is masterly in its presentation of the thirteen-year-old Jake, whose consciousness carries the narrative. Jake is blind, and the modulation of experience through heightened senses other than sight, the acceptance of blindness as normality, and the deep rapport...

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T. J. Binyon

As his other books show, Peter Dickinson has a liking for outré societies; the one portrayed in Walking Dead seems a less artificial construction than has sometimes been the case and its characters are more human—which compensates for a rather thin plot. But this is a minor criticism of a highly intelligent, witty and elegant book. (p. 1483)

T. J. Binyon, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd, (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 16, 1977.

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Newgate Callendar

Leave it to Peter Dickinson to dream up something unusual. This British writer creates mysteries that can have all kinds of threatening undertones, and that have an unusual milieu…. Dickinson has imagination, and he also is a sensitive writer. Every new book of his can be approached with anticipation.

His latest is "Walking Dead."… In it he poses an ethical problem. A scientist who is an expert on rat and monkey behavioral patterns finds himself framed for murder on a Caribbean island. The dictator orders him to investigate the potentialities of a new drug. But this time he is not to experiment on animals. He is given a group of blacks who are enemies of the state. Go to work—or else.


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Ethel L. Heins

A powerful, wholly original novel is constructed with enormous skill and written with rare perception and intuition [in Annerton Pit]. [In the story of the characters'] incarceration and of their attempts to escape from the chill, slimy, terrifying underground labyrinth, the horror of the deliberate, detailed writing approaches that of Poe. But there are also intimations of Dostoevsky, for the greatest impact of the novel is psychological. Martin, who has secretly been an idealistic young supporter of the revolutionists, is placed in an agonizing situation; after the rescue by the police he must, ironically, become "the tool of the very system that scarred the green hills, poisoned river and sea, murdered plant...

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Margery Fisher

The classic journey-adventures of the past, from [Frederick] Marryat and [Walter] Scott downwards, have most of them been journeys of body and spirit together: the most stringent and compelling accidents have their full effect when we can see how they have changed the protagonist other than by merely breaking his head. The divagating and dangerous journey taken [in Tulku] by Theodore Tewker into Tibet is, to outward appearance, a flight; surviving a Boxer raid on his father's mission in China, the boy attaches himself to chance-met travellers without any particular plan or hope. It is not for many months that he is able to admit that there was a pattern, mysterious and inexplicable, in his journeying…....

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