Leon Garfield

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Margery Fisher

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The dead little gentleman—what a title that would have been for [Devil-in-the-fog, a] strange compound of mystery, violence and Dickensian humour. Did the infant George Dexter die in truth or was he really farmed out among the numerous progeny of Mr. Treet the itinerant actor? There is a search for identity in this book, as there was in Jack Holborn, worked out in just such a way, with dropped hints, evasive half-answers, events acquiring meaning bit by bit as the story winds on. The theme is implicit in the first lines ('My father is put in the stocks again! Oh, the injustice of it! My father is a genius—as are all of we Treets') as it is in the last ('For the dead little gentleman sleeps in the churchyard close by his father …). Father and son, character inherited or acquired—the theme is carried like a refrain through the story….

Artistry is a matter of painstaking work relaxed, finally, in personal ease. One of Leon Garfield's devices, implied in his title, is to sustain the image of fog all through the book. In the abstract, for everyone is in a fog about the meaning of events. In the everyday life of the Treets, since their claim to respect rests on the Lucifer's Smoke and Devil's Fire they are so adept at producing. And in event after event—the November fog that heralds the arrival of the Stranger; the mists of Sussex 'like clumps of wool from a giant's sheep' through which the Treet's waggon rolls towards the Hall; the mist-hung thicket where George ventures to meet his disreputable and perhaps murderous uncle. To notice this is a pleasure for the reader, but not an effort; every part of the book is natural and inevitable. Yet what a strange, almost tormented prose it is, really—a mass of asterisks and dots and exclamation marks, of whimsical detail and Joycean phrase (the footman has 'conspiracyshaped eyes,' and the fumes of Mr. Treet's smoke jostle 'like a crowd at a wedding or a hanging'). It is all … closely suited to the late eighteenth century period…. A strange book, more than life-size and yet life-like for the feelings and attitudes of the characters: a book to leave firmly out of categories and accept thankfully for what it is—a masterpiece. (p. 809)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, December, 1966.

Mr. Garfield is a difficult writer to praise highly—yet. His gift for language is remarkable and he can evoke a scene so vividly that you see, feel, hear and smell it, but his first novel, Jack Holborn, was a broken-backed story, and Smith, his third, suffers equally from Mr. Garfield's episodic treatment and the unlikeliness of his plot. The author's knowledge of the underworld of eighteenth-century London enables him to paint a splendidly convincing backcloth. He invents a set of characters to people his stage. They must, of course, talk and act, and so they do, in a series of episodes. Moreover, Mr. Garfield likes to give his characters typical catch-phrases, so that they are recognizable by what they say rather than by what they are….

Mr. Garfield is fascinated by the mixture of romantic bravado and unutterable squalor that characterized eighteenth-century low life, but is he moved by those who lived in it? The alleys, taverns and rat-ridden dens that lay under the shadow of Newgate and the hangman's noose are brilliantly evoked, but the misfortunes of Smith … hardly ever stir the feelings. Characters are drawn in bold, Dickensian strokes, and a wry humour pervades the writing. Indeed,...

(This entire section contains 717 words.)

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there is so much to admire that one is impatient with the weakness of the plot, especially its sentimental ending.

Mr. Garfield can take his readers with him into the stench and filth of footpad London, across the snowbound heath where the pistols of the high toby, Lord Tom, flashed "blue daylight", into the sunless swarming warren of Newgate prison, and the cellar of the rickety old Red Lion tavern, but he cannot make them believe in the convoluted plot or involve them in the fortunes of those who partake in it. This is, perhaps, a basic weakness of many picaresque novels. (p. 446)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 25, 1967.


Jean C. Thomson


Naomi Lewis