(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leon Garfield 1921–

British novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer. Garfield has used the content and background of English history in his works to create an interpretation both modern and unique. Operating out of the tradition of writers such as Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson, he has brought an original viewpoint and style to such established literary forms as the adventure novel and picaresque romance. Many of his works are novels of experience which employ a journey motif, often describing the involvement of a young homeless or rootless hero with characters and situations that lead him to an understanding of his true identity. He will often provide twists in narrative and characterization to show both hero and reader the deceptiveness of appearances, especially as they relate to good and evil. Garfield's heroes uniformly search for values that are solid and permanent, and his fiction has been said to reflect his own similar concerns and desires. He had an unsettled childhood, with a neurotic mother and an irresponsible father whom he has compared to the character of Mr. Treet in Devil-in-the-Fog. Garfield originally wanted to become an artist, but World War II interrupted his studies. Following the war, he worked for twenty years as a biochemical technician in a London hospital, and wrote in his spare time. Both art and chemistry have influenced Garfield's style, since he has a painter's eye for composition and detail, and a scientist's predilection for research, detail, and fact. Although the times and events he describes are only occasionally particularized, such as the French Revolution in The Prisoners of September, he makes them appear believable and authentic, and presents attitudes to such subjects as mental illness without overemphasis or sentimentality. Garfield has been criticized for concentrating on atmosphere over plot and for being too wordy, melodramatic, and hard to read. Some critics also feel that he tries too hard to be allusive and symbolic. The modern reinterpretations of Greek myths which Garfield wrote with Edward Blishen have especially been criticized for their loftiness, and for losing the significance of the myths in the psychological theorizing of the authors. However, he is often considered among those contemporary writers who are headed towards classic status, and whose works are closing the gap between literature for adults and the young. Devil-in-the-Fog was the winner of the first Guardian Award for children's fiction in 1967, and The God Beneath the Sea was awarded the 1971 Carnegie Medal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

[Jack Holborn] is not easy reading, for the plot is involved, and there are slight lacunae in its unfolding, as if the book had been cut and certain connecting links lost. Yet the brilliantly written episodes, of which the appearances of mad Taplow's "ghost" are among the most graphic, remain in one's mind, alight with promise for Mr. Garfield's future….

A book for rather older children, it requires some patience, even rereading in places, for the author does not always treat his plot expertly. He seems unable to control his main themes through the tortuous paths of shipwreck, slavery and mistaken identity. A firmer editorial hand might have clarified the issues. Nonetheless, a vividly painted rogue's gallery and a robust style that owes something to [Tobias] Smollett—a statement intended as a compliment—make Mr. Garfield an author worth watching. (p. 1072)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 26, 1964.

There is more action to the square page in [Jack Holborn] than can be adequately condensed…. [Leon Garfield] writes well and uses a myriad of absorbing detail to make you see, hear and smell the disparate sections of 18th century London and the world. The cast of characters is enormous of course, but the dialogue is so well done that each of the many voices emerges as a distinct personality, partly through the descriptions of Jack Holborn, the young narrator, and partly through their own choices of revealing words and identifying phrases. (Jack has the master gossip's great ear for reporting whole conversations.) The book is proof positive that all good stories deserve re-telling, because in lesser hands, each of the amazing dramatic turns Jack's story takes would be just a series of thundering cliches…. It's done with such terrific good nature and flair that you begin by liking Jack, whose instincts are good, and wind up enjoying the whole teeming book. (p. 1082)

Virginia Kirkus' Service (copyright © 1965 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), October 15, 1965.