Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
Author: Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)
First published: 2012
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical fiction
Time of plot: The nineteenth century
Locale: London, England
Dodger, a teenage scavenger who roams the London sewers
Simplicity, a young woman fleeing an unhappy marriage
Charles "Charlie" Dickens, a journalist and writer
The Outlander, an assassin sent to kill Simplicity
British novelist Terry Pratchett's 2012 young-adult novel Dodger opens on a stormy night in Victorian London. That night, the novel's protagonist, Dodger, is roaming his usual territory: London's sewer system. The teenage orphan supports himself as a "tosher," one who searches the sewers for coins and other valuable lost items. That night, he pauses his work when he hears screams from the street above, bursting out of the sewer to investigate. Dodger finds a young woman being beaten by a pair of men after trying to escape from a coach with a squeaky wheel. He chases off the men and returns to the girl, who begs him for help. Shortly thereafter, passers-by Henry Mayhew and Charlie Dickens stumble across Dodger and the young woman and, hoping to help the injured girl, take her and Dodger to Henry's home. There, the young woman receives treatment for her injuries as well as for the miscarriage she suffered due to the attack. She reveals little about herself other than that she is fleeing from her husband. Determined to learn more about the young woman, who comes to be known as Simplicity, and to discover the identities of her attackers, Dodger seeks out clues on the streets of London, soon learning that he was not the only resident of the city's slums who had noticed the squeaky-wheeled coach.
Terry Pratchett.By Robin Zebrowski, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Over the next chapters, Dodger seeks to untangle the mystery of Simplicity and her attackers, all the while stumbling into a variety of unusual situations. While waiting to report his findings to Charlie, who works at the Morning Chronicle newspaper, Dodger prevents an acquaintance from robbing the newspaper's Fleet Street office and is heralded as a hero by the paper's employees. Upon his return to Fleet Street for a haircut, he enables the police to apprehend the barber Sweeney Todd, who has been murdering his customers. He meets Simplicity, with whom he has fallen in love, on several occasions, helping orchestrate her move from Henry's home to the household of the wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts, where she will be protected from any attempts to return her to her husband. While Dodger, Charlie, and Simplicity meet with politician Benjamin Disraeli, a friend of Charlie who is open to helping the young woman, more details about her past are revealed: The foreign-born daughter of an Englishwoman, Simplicity married a German prince with whom she was in love. After the marriage, however, her husband's demeanor and treatment of her changed significantly, and she fled the country for her late mother's homeland in search of freedom. Her husband's father was angered by the marriage, as he had planned for his son to make a political match. Now, the patriarch seeks to eliminate all evidence of the marriage, including those who performed and witnessed the ceremony as well as Simplicity herself.
Seeking to protect Simplicity from those searching for her, including a mysterious assassin known as the Outlander, who appears to be a different man every time he is seen, Dodger devises a plan to fake Simplicity's death. He obtains a body from a local morgue, which he places in the sewers. When he returns to the sewers with a group that includes Simplicity and Charlie, however, he is attacked by the Outlander, who is revealed to be a woman who works with male assistants and thus escapes the police's notice herself. With Simplicity's help, Dodger defeats the Outlander and her assistant, and he proceeds to fake Simplicity's death with the help of Charlie and his other companions. As the novel concludes, Dodger embarks on a new life with Simplicity, who has renamed herself Serendipity, and a new career as a spy who has been knighted by Queen Victoria.
In the author's note that follows the text of the novel, Pratchett explains that he considers Dodger to be not a work of historical fiction in the traditional sense but rather a historical fantasy. Indeed, the novel lives up to that description, blending historical elements with the more fanciful aspects of the narrative in inventive ways. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the novel's dual historical and fantastical nature is its use of characters drawn from both history and literature. Dodger, for instance, is loosely based on the character of the Artful Dodger from Charles Dickens's 1838 novel Oliver Twist, while the newspaperman Charlie is Dickens himself. Over the course of the novel, numerous historical figures play a part in the narrative, from Mayhew, Burdett-Coutts, and Disraeli to Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer who improved the function of London's sewer system in the nineteenth century, and Robert Peel, who in 1829 established London's Metropolitan Police Force. Although such individuals existed in the real-life England of the nineteenth century, the presence of some of them in the novel underscores its less realistic nature, as Pratchett admits in his author's note that he had to adjust some timelines "to get people," including Peel, "in the right place at the right time." The portion of the novel dealing with the murderous barber Sweeney Todd likewise calls attention to Dodger's fantastical elements, as Todd is a literary character who made his debut in the English popular fiction of the 1840s.
Although Pratchett's interweaving of the historical and the fantastic plays a key role in Dodger, perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is its compelling portrait of nineteenth-century London and the city's poorer residents. Through the use of vivid descriptions, period-appropriate slang, and historical and cultural allusions as well as through the presentation of Dodger and his friends and acquaintances, Pratchett reconstructs a detailed world and provides young readers who might be unfamiliar with nineteenth-century London with a clear picture of life in the city during that era. Ultimately a socially conscious work, Dodger confronts issues such as poverty and domestic abuse that remain as significant in the twenty-first century as they were in the time in which the novel is set.
- Dirda, Michael. "Book World: Dodger, by Terry Pratchett, Is an Artful Take on Dickens's London." Review of Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. The Washington Post, 7 Nov. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-world-dodger-by-terry-pratchett-is-an-artful-take-on-dickenss-london/2012/11/07/9f4ca50a-2439-11e2-9313-3c7f59038d93_story.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
- Robinson, Tasha. "Pratchett Leaves Discworld for London in Dodger." Review of Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. NPR Books, 26 Sept. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/09/26/161284603/pratchett-leaves-discworld-for-london-in-dodger. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
- Sedgwick, Marcus. Review of Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. The Guardian, 17 Oct. 2012, www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/17/dodger-terry-pratchett-review. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.