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.