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.