Terry Pratchett’s Dodger tells the story of a Victorian tosher, a practitioner of a now lost profession, which involved searching through London’s sewers for money or valuable items dropped in the streets above. The book is loosely based on historical reality, with our tosher hero meeting many famous Victorian celebrities – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, the civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette – Pratchett taking historical liberties to get all of these people together at the same London house party.
I think the book was most interesting in those sections that make you think about truth. This sounds academic and high falutin’, but really is better thought of in the heated context of tabloid news. At one point, Dodger, trying to smarten himself up for a meeting with his new friend Charles Dickens, goes to a barber for a shave. Unfortunately he chooses Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street as his barber. Sweeney turns out to be a former soldier suffering from PTSD, who has killed a number of his clients. Dodger, realising that the man is deranged, relieves him of his razor just as the police arrive. Dodger sees that Sweeney is ill rather than evil, but Charles Dickens in his role as journalist, explains how a nuance-averse public likes to see the world in black and white. So when Dickens writes the incident up in The Morning Chronicle, Dodger becomes a hero to Sweeney’s villain.
Charles Dickens, of course, portrayed a character called the Artful Dodger in his novel Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger lives with Fagin, a Jewish man who runs a group of youthful pickpockets. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger also lives with a Jewish man, the clever, artistic, cultured Solomon. So what’s going on there? Perhaps Pratchett’s quiet message is that the real Charles Dickens would have had to rewrite events somewhat for public consumption, just as he did in that imagined scene with Sweeney Todd. The real Dickens would have to make an ambivalent Dodger, who finds valuables people are silly enough to lose, into pickpocket Artful Dodger, who is much more clearly a criminal. The real Dickens might also have to work with a prejudiced, stereotypical view of Jewish people, so that Dodger’s Jewish mentor, a decent, kind and cultured man on the run from European prejudice, becomes miserly, sneaky Fagin.
This was the aspect of Dodger I found most interesting, the idea of truth filtered through the sort of writing that people will accept. Even the book’s modern narrative voice, seemingly immune to the prejudice of the past, has its limitations. This voice is far away from the events it describes, and muddles those events to get, for example, famous Victorians at the same party. At one point Buckingham Palace, seen through the eyes of light-fingered Dodger, becomes a “target rich environment,” a jarringly modern phrase. So this Pratchett narrative voice is just another point of view, not the truth.
I enjoyed all these thoughtful elements of the book. Less compelling was the plot, particularly in the second half, when it becomes a tale of derring-do in pursuit of justice and the love of a good woman. Overall, Dodger is a kind of Victorian melodrama meets modern YA adventure, infused with fascinating reflections on how people filter the world through what they read.