Some writers simply possess the Gift. No matter what they bring out, whether masterpiece or misfire, it’s sure to be compulsively readable. That’s certainly the case with Terry Pratchett — technically Sir Terry Pratchett — whose latest novel, “Dodger,” takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’s 19th-century London.
For many years now, Pratchett has been best known for his Discworld novels, comic fantasies with serious undertones set on a planet much like Earth, but where civilization resembles something out of sword-and-sorcery epic combined with steampunk. On the Discworld, witches and sorcerers and charming villains work their wiles; the skinny but tough Cohen the Barbarian fights on into his 90s; and Death — who always speaks in small-capital letters — is a weary, almost noble figure, who at one point takes a vacation and allocates his sad duties to an understudy named Mort.
Most of the Discworld novels skewer familiar cultural institutions, whether journalism (“The Truth”), religion (“Small Gods”) or Hollywood (“Moving Pictures”). Like many other satirists, Pratchett is also a not-so-secret moralist, critical of all ideologies and accepting of our usual human failings in this strange mixed affair we call life. As the Omnian religion reminds us: “We are here, and it is now.”
While virtually anything by Pratchett can be enjoyed by an intelligent teenager, he has also written middle-reader children’s books, some set in the Discworld, such as “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” (winner of the 2001 Carnegie Medal), and a series of young-adult adventures centered on a teenage witch named Tiffany Aching, who is frequently assisted by a Lilliputian cohort known as the Wee Free Men. “Nation” — Pratchett’s most ambitious YA novel, a meditation on the individual and society set against a backdrop that resembles that of “Lord of the Flies” — takes place on what is meant to be a just slightly alternate 19th-century Earth.
Such is the case, too, for “Dodger,” which borrows the Artful Dodger from “Oliver Twist” and transforms him into an unlikely hero, a lad who prospers in surprising ways, if not quite in those that would win the approval of Horatio Alger Jr.
Dodger, who is about 17 when the book begins, lives entirely by his wits in a rough-and-tumble London, chockablock with thieves, prostitutes, beggars and outcasts. He earns his bed and board by roaming the sewers, unearthing valuables that have been swept down the city’s drains. As a “tosher” — the name for such sewer rats — he is the best there is, knowing the underground drainage system and such subterranean locations as the Maelstrom, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Golden Maze and Breathe Easy as well as hackney cab drivers know the above-ground streets and intersections.
“Dodger” opens dramatically, on a rain-swept night:
“A fancy two-horse coach wallowed its way along the street, some piece of metal stuck near an axle causing it to be heralded by a scream. And indeed there was a scream, a human scream this time, as the coach door was flung open and a figure tumbled out into the gushing gutter. . . . Two other figures sprang from the coach, cursing in language that was as colorful as the night was dark and even dirtier. In the downpour, fitfully lit by the lightning, the first figure tried to escape but tripped, fell, and was leaped upon, with a cry that was hardly to be heard in all the racket, but which was almost supernaturally counterpointed by the grinding of iron, as a drain cover nearby was pushed open to reveal a struggling and skinny young man who moved with the speed of a snake.
“ ‘You let that girl alone!’ he shouted.”
After Dodger succeeds in driving off the ruffians, he is suddenly accosted by two gentlemen, one named Charlie and the other Henry. The three help the young lady — blond, blue-eyed, slightly foreign in air — and take her to a place of safety, the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Mayhew.
Charlie, no surprise, turns out to be a scribbling newspaperman named Dickens, while Henry Mayhew is none other than the now-celebrated compiler of that vast compendium of 19th-century reportage, “London Labour and the London Poor.” Some readers may recall that I reviewed an abridgement of this huge tome last year — it is, in effect, the great source bible for novelists and historians of the Victorian underclass. Pratchett dedicates “Dodger” to the actual Mayhew.
In due course, Charlie Dickens recruits Dodger to look into the mystery of the beautiful young lady and the reasons for her kidnapping. As the story proceeds, we meet our hero’s mentor, Solomon Cohen, an admirably learned and kindly version of Fagin, and encounter the rising young politician Benjamin Disraeli; the richest (and possibly shrewdest) woman in England, Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts; the artist John Tenniel; Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London police force; and several other figures familiar from history. In one chapter, Dodger nearly loses his life to none other than Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Pratchett keeps the action rattling along as it gradually grows clear that the abused young woman, known only as Simplicity, is a counter in a deadly game of international politics. To be rid of her permanently, an unnamed power — though pretty obviously Prussia — is willing to do anything, even employ Europe’s most ruthless assassin, the Outlander.
While the tone of “Dodger” might be called more rumbustious than comic, there is an ongoing gag about Dickens. Whenever Dodger uses a phrase like “great expectations” or “bleak house,” Charlie says, “Excuse me,” pulls out a notebook and makes a note of it. Similarly, Solomon Cohen, who seems to have fled persecution from virtually every European country, repeatedly mentions a long-lost friend who always insisted that one day, the old order would be swept away. Whatever happened, Solomon often wonders, to the heavily bearded Karl . . . ?
While Pratchett is generally known for his similes, they are, alas, in short supply here. Still, when Solomon and Dodger visit some Turkish baths, they step “into a huge room which looked rather like Hell would look if it had been designed by somebody who thought people deserved another chance.” When Dodger happens upon his mentor dressed for a special dinner, he is “confronted by Solomon arrayed in all his glory.”
“Dodger,” with its colorful background and zesty period language, should appeal to almost any young reader, yet ultimately the book feels talky, slightly padded and lacking in big surprises. Simplicity, in particular, never quite comes alive as a character. Throughout, Pratchett’s focus is resolutely on Dodger — the growth of his soul, the renewed purpose that love gives to his life, the eventual discovery of a vocation. The resulting novel is certainly enjoyable — Sir Terry, after all, does have the Gift — but it lacks the intricate plot twists and snap of Pratchett’s finest work.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Terry Pratchett
Harper. 358 pp. $18.99