If you've never read a book by Leon Garfield before, then you don't know what you're missing. One of the masters of children's literature, and a direct literary descendant of Charles Dickens (encompassing his love of dark and murky plots, meaningful character names and stupendous use of language), Garfield writes stories set in the mid-18th century with such authenticity that it's as if he'd lived through them.
Bartholomew Dorking (later dubbed "Tolly") is a young apprentice to a draper when he's accosted by Mrs Gorgandy, a professional widow who claims bodies from the gallows for the sole purpose of selling them to surgeons. Coercing the young teenager into watching the body of the dreadful Black Jack, Tolly is horrified when the corpse suddenly lurches back to life! By the insertion of a piping into his windpipe, Black Jack has cheated strangulation by the noose, much to the dismay of Tolly who now finds himself the convict's unwilling associate as he flees through the dark London streets.
Feeling responsible for the criminal's return to life, Tolly finds himself intolerably bound to him, even when he finds himself assisting in the sabotage of coaches. Yet by twist of fate, Black Jack upturns a carriage traveling from the Carter household, which contains young Belle Carter on the way to an asylum. Considered mad since she was a little girl, Tolly now finds himself with a new traveling companion, one that his soft heart cannot bear to see locked away in madhouse. Caught up with a traveling circus, troubled by the twin burdens of Black Jack and Belle, hounded by the malicious Hatch and desperate to evade the authorities, Tolly grows from boy to man in the vividly portrayed atmosphere of Dickensian London.
Garfield incorporates certain aspects of 18th century life into his story; the beginning of medical study (resulting in the need for dead bodies), the tricks of the trade in traveling fairgrounds, the idea that madness was contained in the bloodlines of families, and the religious fervor that heralded the end of the world (apparently Armageddon was forecast on a regular basis). Reading a Garfield book is getting a history lesson without realizing it, as all these components are beautifully knitted into the context of the story.
Also worth mentioning are the characters themselves; each one brought vividly to life. Tolly is a kind-hearted teenager with a somewhat nervous disposition, though Garfield tells us: "Sort hearts are easily combustible, and when they take fire, they burn with a sudden blaze." Burdened with a clear sense of right and wrong, with a conscience that makes him act on these impulses, (probably due to his idolization of his uncle, a sea captain) you can't help but admire his determination to do the right thing - whether he really wants to or not. Likewise, the terrifying Black Jack is a figure out of a nightmare: hulking, unpredictable, violent and menacing. Even minor characters, such as the dreamy Belle, cheerful Doctor Carmody and blustering Mrs Gorgandy are all great examples of creating unforgettable characters with the right imaginative language.
And Garfield was the master of descriptive language; reading any book of his a joy simply because it is wrapped in expert use of the English language, so rich and dense, you'll find yourself re-reading sentences just to appreciate the care with which they were crafted. Want some examples?
"The boy and the giant felon stared towards each other. In the one pair of eyes was savagery, contempt, even murder - and an angry bitterness that he should be obliged to the white-faced maggot of an apprentice who peered up at him. In the boy's eyes there was fear of savagery, fear of murder, and also a glint of bitterness provoked by the felon's contempt."
"They moved with circumspection through the night; chose infirm alleys and crippled lanes that slunk by the river in a blind and stinking confusion - as if the very streets were lost and would have cast themselves into the river if only they could have found the way."
"A huge spade struck and tore the green quilt...then another. Again and again the spades struck, till the earth flew up in gusts and scudding showers, spattering the stones and spoiling the green. Bending above these spades were two questing faces: one enormous, bearded, black as sin - the other young, desperate, not knowing or daring to know what lay beneath...only wild with hurry."
If you've never read Leon Garfield before, then you're doing yourself a great disservice. Although "Black Jack" is not my favourite of his works (that honour belongs to Smith), you won't regret picking up this book.