Books: Novel Twists on an old tale

D J Taylor bumps into the shade of Dickens on a journey through Victorian mists and myths; Jack Maggs by Peter Carey Faber & Faber, pounds 15.99
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A "magsman" in early 19th-century slang was a burglar. It takes only the merest glance at Jack Maggs, the protagonist of Peter Carey's new novel, as he sets off from Dover aboard the London mail coach in April 1837 to divine something of his professional calling. "His brow pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process."

Our hero, it soon turns out, is an ex-convict, back from Australia with a fortune, to settle with the world - and the people - he left behind. The description of Maggs, with its rapt Dickensian sheens - in particular the image of life as a kind of scrubbing brush - is significant, for it firmly establishes Jack Maggs amid both the landscapes of early Victorian England (still pre-Victorian, as it happens, in April 1837) and their dominant literary style. The late 1830s was the great age of the "Newgate novel", as practised by Bulwer Lytton and W H Ainsworth. Its popularity had reached such a pitch that when Thackeray published his own first novel (Catherine, 1839) it was framed as a deliberate anti-Newgate satire.

Oliver Twist, too, is a Newgate novel, and it's hardly surprising, in a modern fiction about 1830s London, ghosts from the past and thronging low life, to find Carey fervidly chasing the Dickens connection. Arriving at Great Queen Street, Maggs is alarmed to find the premises at which he expects a warm welcome locked up and their owner, Mr Phipps, gone away. On impulse, he applies for the post of footman at the house next door - a previous incumbent having lately blown his brains out - and gets taken on. His employer, Mr Buckle, a former fried fish seller enriched by a chance legacy, has a literary chum named Tobias Oates, author of the best selling Captain Crumley. At dinner that night, having collapsed in a kind of nervous spasm, Maggs awakens to find that Oates has been practising mesmerism on his unconscious form.

Pretty soon the two have a bargain. Oates can mesmerise Maggs in search of insights for his next book on the criminal mind in return for an introduction to a thief-taker who can track down Phipps (Maggs' adopted son), now absconded. As a characteristically early Victorian plot of legal chicanery, nocturnal prowlings and flaring psychology rapidly unwinds, Jack Maggs's grounding in period topsoil grows ever firmer. Oates, for example, is at least 70 per cent Dickens (the sketch-writing for the Morning Chronicle, the social insecurity, the indigent father). Even the interest in mesmerism chimes with what we know of Dickens at this time, and John Sutherland has argued convincingly that the dream sequence in Oliver Twist (in which Oliver, recuperating at the Maylies' rural retreat, is disturbed by the apparent sight of Fagin at the window) grew out of Dickens's inspection of the work of a professional mesmerist. In another reality twist, Oates has a guilty family secret: a love-affair with his sister-in-law, who is pregnant with his child.

While a complex story resolves itself into a joint excursion westward in search of the thief-taker, interspersed with glimpses of Maggs's larcenous childhood, the novel's overall achievement hangs in the air. The period detail is well-handled, while the dialogue - Maggs's chats with his fellow footman, Constable, and the servant girl Mercy Larkin - sports a delicate, echt-Victorian glaze of mock formality.

The threat of anachronism lurks like a shark in novels of this kind, of course, and while Carey admits to "having once or twice stretched history to suit his own fictional ends" I was a bit puzzled by Oates's obsession with Thackeray. His ambition is to be a novelist "who might topple Thackeray himself". Having amused a soiree of medical men, he is mortified by emulative guilt: "Would Thackeray have acted thus?" In fact at this date Thackeray was a 25-year-old hack journalist, living in Paris, who had not yet written a novel or even signed an article with his own name.

The novel ends with a suitable clap of period melodrama, enlivened by the unexpected resourcefulness of Mr Buckle. The jacket talks about acts of homage to Victorian forebears. Jack Maggs is certainly that but one wonders, amid many incidental pleasures and much sinewy prose, whether it ever strays beyond the boundaries of inventive pastiche.