Leon Garfield's one of those authors that, once discovered, feel like personal triumphs. When I read a Leon Garfield book, I suddenly have the impression that I've done something noble and great for the cause of humanity. He feels like my own personal children's author. The kind that I discovered all on my own and that, as one of the best kept secrets in kiddie lit, I don't necessarily want anyone else to know about. Then I come to my senses, sigh, and write a review like this one. Ever since I discovered his brilliant Dickensian, "Smith", I've been meaning to work my way through the Garfield oeuvre. "Black Jack" was second on my reading list and, now that I've read it through, it has become my favorite book by this author. If you've a child that's been enraptured by books like, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" or even, "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase", then you'd be committing a serious crime to omit from your reading list this most enjoyable of high Victorian adventures.
When a set of unlikely circumstances end with young Bartholomew Dorking guarding the coffin of the recently hanged villain Black Jack, the boy is less than delighted. An apprentice to a draper, Tolly has always led an upstanding pious life. Next thing he knows, however, the recently hanged Black Jack (the kind of man described here as, "a mighty fellow, and rough... as if the Almighty had sketched him out (and left the Devil to fill him in) before He'd settled on something of a quieter, more genteel size") is not as dead as he first appeared. In fact, he is very much alive. Taking Tolly with him wherever he goes, the boy finds himself the unwitting accomplice to this most dark-hearted of villains. In the course of their adventures they meet madwomen, frauds, fortune tellers, and sailors. And while Tolly finds true love in the most unlikely of places, Black Jack learns how to use his enormous strength for something other than villainy.
The book is a highly satisfying read. Part of this is due to the characters Garfield's conjured up. Tolly is fourteen and your typical heroic orphan. The kind of lad that Oliver Twist could've grown up to be (if Oliver was a little less saintly and little more human). His eventual lady love, one Miss Belle Carter, begins the book as mad but eventually is seen to be just a gal who suffered a severe shock in her youth and has needed to recover from it ever since. But the true hero of this tale is the title character. Black Jack's one in a million. He's so real that you can practically feel his villainy emanating off the pages that describe him. At the same time, there are chinks in his personality that allow you to understand why Tolly feels he must earn Jack's respect, even as he hates and fears him. Jack has his weaknesses as well. He fears madness above all things and he's often rather disconcerted when he observes Tolly doing the right thing in the face of what's easy. By the end of the book you'll find yourself cheering Jack and Tolly on and wishing that Mr. Leon Garfield had had the inclination to make several sequels of their adventures to accompany this marvelous tale.
So there you have it. A children's book for everyone to enjoy. You like descriptions? Then take a gander at passages like: "(She was) a happy, greasy, jingly lady whose skin was always aglitter with fine brass dust so that she had the air of being a worn but once costly Christmas present". You like a riveting story? By the second half of this book you'll be disinclined to set it down for even half a breath. You can't read a book unless the characters are likable? Even Tolly is a great guy to root for, and HE'S the saintly hero! Some people pooh-pooh Garfield as a lesser Dickens. I prefer to think of him as the logical step kids need between their everyday literature and real Dickens. If you want your child to pick up "Nicholas Nickleby" for fun, don't immediately ungulf them in that text first. Start them out slowly with a little Leon Garfield. With any luck, they'll be howling for more things along that vein. But don't relegate Garfield simply to the ranks of second-rate Dickens. He's an artist in his own right and his books are well worth discovering. You'll love it. I promise.