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Dodger, By Terry Pratchett. Doubleday, £18.99
This is Terry Pratchett's 50th novel and, while it doesn't possess the literary snap, crackle and pop found in some previous works, it still tells a good tale. Doubly Dickensian, it both features the great author as a character and borrows from his novels when it comes to giant-size emotions, flawless heroines and convoluted plotting.
Dodger himself is nothing like the sharp-eyed original from Oliver Twist. Instead he is a basically noble young gentleman of the London rookeries, effortlessly competent in everything from thieving to outwitting villains, with an ability to come out on top that verges on the supernatural.
In all this, he is very like those working-class heroes found in comics published around the Second World War; they, too, managed to win out every week against the forces of evil and snobbery ranged against them. But Pratchett's writing is much better. Good jokes occur, though no longer in such profusion, with someone giving Dodger "a cursory glance which had quite a lot of curse in it". Elsewhere, Dodger's pet dog reacts to his master's new odour, after he emergesfrom a prolonged visit to the sewers, as if "it was a rainbow stuffed with kaleidoscopes". Dodger spends time underground as a "tosher", skilled in finding lost valuables washed down London's drains. On his final noisome journey he is accompanied by Dickens, Disraeli and Sir Joseph Bazalgette. All highly unlikely, but with writing of this warmth, who cares?
Leon Garfield's classic novel Smith offers a more hard-headed picture of the life of a young thief in darkest London. It is also much shorter, with this story taking too long to wrap up and occasionally repeating itself. While Pratchett does not minimise the poverty and suffering, he is principally out to entertain with a story where goodness prevails and – apart from the odd villain – hearts remain in the right place. With few other mainstream novelists making this case any more, Dodger, although flawed, still has much to recommend it.
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