Leon Garfield, Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket (1967)
But there was great determination in him. Each fresh disaster he endured seemed to strengthen his bond with the document…and whatever it might contain. In a way, it seemed to be payment in advance.
“Dickensian” is a word freely tossed about in describing a certain strain of literature, but Smith is one of the rare books that actually deserves it. (It’s no accident that another of the author’s works is a completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood). A singularly stylish adventure story for young readers, set in the raucous milieu of eighteenth century London, it seems less an imitation of the master than a natural extension of his work, and that of earlier comic novelists like Fielding and Smollett.
Twelve-year-old Smith is an accomplished pickpocket, but he gets more than he bargained for when he takes some papers from an old country gentleman just moments before he’s murdered by two sinister men in brown. Smith wants to know what is in the dangerous documents that must be so supremely valuable…but he can’t read! And so he sets out on a determined quest for knowledge, which takes him to places beyond his dreams (or nightmares): a fine gentleman’s house, where he is memorably washed for the first time perhaps since birth; Newgate prison, from which he finds a most unusual mode of escape; Finchley Common, where he takes part in an exciting chase worthy of his most revered highwaymen heroes.
Smith‘s pace never slackens for a moment, as the reader becomes as desperate as Smith himself to know what is in those dratted documents, but Garfield keeps us guessing till the very end. He writes as if he were discovering the story rather than creating it, and it’s this exuberant, conversational style that redeems the absurdly improbable plot, and brings a true comic sensibility to what otherwise might have been a grim and somber tale. Here’s a sample, from Smith’s early attempts to find someone who will teach him to read:
Very educated gentlemen, the debtors. A man needs to be educated to get into debt. Scholars all. The first Smith tried was a tall, fine-looking gentleman who, though still in leg-irons, walked like he owned the jail — as well he might, for his debts could have bought it entire.
He smiled; he was never at a loss for a smile. . . which was, perhaps, why he was there; when a man can’t pay what he owes, a smile is a deal worse than nothing!
“Learn us to read, mister!” said Smith, humbly.
The fine debtor stopped, looked — and sighed.
“Not in ten thousand years, my boy!” and, before Smith could ask him why, he told him.
“Be happy that you can’t! For what will you get by it? You’ll read and fret over disasters that might never touch you. You’ll read hurtful letters that might have passed you by. You’ll read warrants and summonses where you might have pleaded ignorance. You’ll read of bills overdue and creditors’ anger — where you might have ignored it all for another month! Don’t learn to read, Smith! Oh! I implore you!”
Then the gentleman drifted, smiling, away, with his back straight, his head held high — and his ankles jingling.
There are other rollicking historical novels for young people out there; I already know and love those by Joan Aiken, Philip Pullman, and Lloyd Alexander, to name a few. Garfield’s distinctive narrative voice was new to me, though, and I found it charming and intriguing. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of this author’s work; he deserves a second look.
A Folio Society edition is also available
Review copy source: Print book from library
1987 Phoenix Award Winner
Classics Club List #5