Under the Radar Recommendations: Leon Garfield
Out of the storming dust had appeared a huge, monkish figure with black-bearded head on the tilt--as if it had been newly hanged--and a white-faced boy at its side, like a familiar spirit.
"Want any help, gents, in getting back on the road?" asked Black Jack with a murderously charitable grin.
--Black Jack, Leon Garfield
Every so often, fantasy doesn't do it for me. Every so often, I can't handle teen angst. Every so often, I want to read a rip snorter of an adventure novel. I want pickpockets and pirates, hangings and highwaymen, incarcerations in -- or, depending on the character, escapes from -- Newgate, stories where the baddies don't suddenly see the wickedness of their ways, but get their just desserts, and where the heroes eventually find long-lost family members (or newly adopted ones) and go from rags to riches. Not only that, but I want action, suspense, chills, excitement and laughs. Maybe even a few tears.
Tall order, right?
Not for Leon Garfield.
As a member in good standing of the Leon Garfield Fan Club (which is a very informal and disorganized group, as I just made it up), I'm regularly surprised at how few of my patrons are familiar with his books. Not just because they're such super-duper books (which they are), but because there are some seriously exalted members of the LGFC:
Joan Aiken: Leon Garfield's stories are a rich and highly flavored stir-fry of eighteenth-century adventure. Under their wild story lines the books reveal an impressive knowledge of Victorian and Regency lowlife. Young readers are drawn in by the involved, mysterious plots, adults appreciate the black, sometimes outrageous humor. These are books for communal family reading, in the way that Dickens and Fielding were enjoyed by parents and children together in the nineteenth century.
Lloyd Alexander: Leon Garfield is unmatched for sheer, exciting storytelling; and, as well, for grand style and spirit. He has a perfect eye for character and a perfect ear for language. Whether suspenseful, droll, or deeply moving--or all this at the same time--his books are rich in color, bursting with vitality. He writes in the great tradition of English literature but his voice is uniquely his own.
Cripes, I don't know about you, but those quotes alone would be enough to send me running to the library. (If I didn't already have my own precious pile.)
So, with all of that in mind, I'll highlight a few titles for you...
Black Jack (1968)
Black Jack begins with the introduction of Mrs. Gorgandy, who makes her living by being in constant mourning. Yes, you read that right.
Whenever a criminal is hanged and the body is unclaimed, Mrs. Gorgandy steps in. Weeping and wailing, she begs strangers to help her cut the body down. Once she gets it home, she turns around and sells the body to a surgeon. After all, corpses bring in good money.
Until the hanging of Black Jack on April 14, 1749:
"Poor soul!" had sighed Mrs. Gorgandy when she'd learned of Black Jack's impending cancellation. "When there's breath in you, you ain't worth two penn'orth of cold gin; yet your mint-new widder might fairly ask fifteen pound ten for your remandiers. And get it, too!"
"Impending cancellation". I love that.
Needing assistance with the coffin, Mrs. Gorgandy pulls Bartholomew Dorking, a boy "of that age when public notice is as unwelcome as a fire at sea", out of the crowd. And once the coffin is safely stowed in her house, she convinces him to sit with the body for a while. Well, "convinces" may be pushing it -- "railroads" might be a bit more accurate:
"The just stay with 'im for 'alf an hour while I goes to--to gather 'is kith and kin and say a prayer and drink 'is--um--'ealth before 'e goes to 'is last rest. I wouldn't ask, dear, only some of 'em might call while I'm out and be fussed to get no answer. So if anyone knocks, just you say I'll be back directly and that the whopper's--um--poor Jack's safe and sound. "Alf an hour, dear--"
Aaaaand then she locks him in. With the massive, half-naked (in those days, the dead man's clothes were awarded to the hangman) corpse of Black Jack. Who turns out to not be a corpse, due to the piece of pipe he'd jammed into his throat prior to the hanging. And who, after Bartholomew saves him from choking to death, shows his gratitude by kidnapping the young apprentice.
There's a traveling circus, a bad news parson and doctor team-up, a corrupt asylum mistress and a lunatic escapee who might not be as mad as she seems, and even a smidge of romance. How could you even possible think of resisting?
Jack Holborn (1964)
Meet Jack Holborn, math-whiz:
For a good half of the tempest, my stomach must have thrown up every meal I'd had in my life: for a worse half, I prayed for I don't know what: and for the worst half of all (a storm cares nothing for arihtmetic and has as many halves as it chooses) I lay nearly dead of a blow from that thankless sack I'd freed to make me a pillow.
and offerer of friendly advice:
To all you gentlemen who cannot sleep, whether from heat, cold, dread, expectation, pain or a gloomy conscience, let me give you a certain remedy: a fall of ten feet onto a wooden deck, head first. With a huge Welshman on top of you it's more sure, of course; but if one's not to hand you'll sleep quite sound from your own progress alone. I promise you.
Shortly after stowing away -- and before his presence is revealed -- Jack's adventure begins when the Charming Molly is captured by pirates. None of the former passengers or crew survives the battle. Later, when Jack is discovered, the pirates put him to work. He spends most of his time with Mr. Pobjoy, the cook:
Then, with a cheerful injunction not to wake him this night like the last, lest he slit my dear throat with a pork knife, he slopped off to bed, emptied of talk and full of gin.
Early on, the Captain makes it clear that he knows more about Jack's past than Jack does -- but, as long as Jack is in his debt, he will remain silent. If Jack is able to save the Captain's life three times, their positions will be reversed and the Captain will tell him what he wants to know.
Murder and mutiny, a treasure (including a cursed diamond, of course!) worth millions of pounds, a shipwreck, a slave auction, secret twins, a trial at the Old Bailey... Due to the setting and to the pirates, Jack Holborn often draws comparisons to Treasure Island and the like -- but the description of Jack & Co.'s attempts at survival after the shipwreck sequence (complete with seemingly haunted jungle) will be attractive to fans of Lost, as will the psychological thrills that come out of the discovery of the treasure (that part, of course, makes me think of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and, both in the jungle and later, there are some pretty serious flashes of Poe.
The God Beneath the Sea (1970)
Lest you think that Leon Garfield ONLY wrote rip snorters, here's a very different one that I discovered recently.
Quite often, retellings of Greek myths give me that Biff! Bang! Pow!* feeling. The gods don't seem to have much going on other than simple lust and jealousy. Not so with The God Beneath the Sea. The book is broken into three parts. It opens with the infant Hephaestus:
Now the sun was gone and the twisting, flickering, shining thing lit up a patch of the night as it rushed down to meet itself in the sea.
The sound grew shriller, louder. The waves began to tremble and hasten hither and thither in a panic. It was coming.... Then, for the briefest instant, the falling shape was seen quite clearly as it turned over and over in the air. It was a fiery, shrieking baby....
Suddenly two white arms rose up out of the sea. They caught the infant as it fell and drew it swiftly down under the wave. The light was quenched and sea rolled on, dark and peaceful under the stars.
Part One tells the story of his upbringing by Eurynome and Thetis, as well the stories of his family's background. Part Two concentrates on Prometheus, and Part Three covers various later stories. In that last section, the retelling of the Demeter, Persephone and Hades story was the one that really stood out for me.
There are connections and relationships that bridge the sections, especially between Hephaestus, Prometheus and Hermes: Hephaestus and Prometheus feel a connection because they are both outsiders and both creators, Hephaestus and Hermes have more of a brotherly connection than Hephaestus and Ares ever do, and though he doesn't really act on the feeling, (because, after all, he is Hermes, and always backs the winning team), Hermes clearly sympathizes with Prometheus.
It's much darker and more violent than the other children's retellings I've read -- the blind Fates, for instance, scared the bejebus out of me:
"No!" cried the goddess in a sudden anguish. "Stop!" She seized the dreadful Atropos by the wrist so that the shears fell open and a frail strand lay waiting between the bladeds.
"Begone, great goddess!" snarled Atropos, and shook herself free. "We are not subject to you."
The shears snapped shut. The thread divided and fell. And Demeter fancied that she heard across the world a faint cry, the a sigh, and a ripple of tears.
The the goddess's voice faded and dwindled away till it was no more than the sighing of the wind that mingled with the creaking of Clotho's wheel and the ceaseless snapping of the shears.
But, hey! It's not all death and violence -- it's a bit sexier, too:
Uranus listened and smiled. There was nothing in heaven and earth that could oppose him. His throne was the very rock of the universe. He closed his eyes and the sun and stars went out. He slept and dreamed that Mother Earth was in his arms. He saw her smile; he heard her sigh. His huge hands tightened till he dreamed her breath came sharp and passionate.
He could hear each separate intake, which seemed to catch at its return with an almost secret air; and he heard the beating of her heart. But he slept on, and a single lamp cast his heaving shadow against the soaring wall of his bedchamber. The lamp flickered, making the sleeping shadow writhe to the rhythm of his dream.
Granted, he gets done in in the next paragraph. As different as the style may be, they are still the same stories, after all. According to the Afterword, Garfield and Blishen were comfortable with inventing detail and emotion within these stories, but they were determined not to twist -- they wanted to stay "within the logic" of the myths. Well worth a read if you've missed it.
So there you have it. If you're in a reading slump, Leon Garfield's probably got something for whatever ails you. If you're not, well, that's super. But you should give him a try anyway.
*I should make it clear that I enjoy the Biff! Bang! Pow! stories just fine -- I read them again and again -- but this one is so different that it really stands out.
lectitans: The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Meets the Phantom of the Opera by Sam Siciliano