Sunday, November 25, 2012

Artful

I recently read somewhere that Terry Pratchett is now dictating his books to an amanuensis making his lively and hilarious output even more appropriate for listening consumption.  This is certainly the case with his most recent book to hit our shores, Dodger, a Victorian romp which was fun from start to finish. Pratchett's story of a young scamp who makes good was a feast for at least three senses - ears, (mind's) eyes, and nose (although the smells so accurately described are not particularly festive).

The eponymous Dodger is a tosher, scouring London's stinky sewers for the treasures lost through its grates. He's pretty good at it, but he also fortunate enough to have made a friend of a Jewish watchmaker, Solomon, who offers him a safe, dry place to sleep (and store his stash) as long as he walks Solomon's incredibly oderiferous mutt, the aptly named Onan (and to click on that link will spoil one of Pratchett's silly jokes as the novel comes to a close). Late one night, raining cats and dogs, Dodger emerges from one of his toshing expeditions and is confronted by a scene that sets his blood aboil -- a young woman has leapt from a moving carriage, followed by two large men, who then begin beating her.  Seeing Dodger, she pleads for him to save her, and Dodger -- never one to disobey a beautiful (if bedraggled) lady -- complies. Even though he is ably holding his own in his fight with the two blackguards, when two other gentlemen appear in the street and enter the fray, the villains leap into their carriage and dash away. The two gentlemen prevail upon Dodger to help the lady to the warm and dry house of one of them nearby, and Dodger is introduced to the first of his new benefactors:  Charley Dickens and Henry Mayhew.

Secretly, Dodger vows to protect the lady (who later adopts the name of Simplicity), even though that revenge may bring down the British government.  Along the way, he encounters a number of familiar (or not so) characters (Sir Robert Peel, Joseph Bazalgette and Angela Burdett-Coutts, plus Her Majesty the Queen) who -- charmed and intrigued by this ambitious young man whose wit and cleverness enables him to overcome his humble beginnings -- aid him in his elaborate plan of revenge. It doesn't hurt that Dodger manages to disarm a certain barber who was interested in giving him a rather close shave, making him a hero to one and all in early Victorian London.  The city is a vivid character in itself -- the crowded streets, the unhealthy tenements, the quiet streets of the rich, and its sewers. Oh, its sewers -- I could feel and smell the muck, goo and well, shit.

This has to be among my favorite books (read or heard) this year. Like another one of his "non-Discworld" stories, Pratchett manages to address some serious subjects without ever losing his sense of the ridiculous.  For example, I heard the dog's name, said to myself, "isn't that ...?" and knew, I knew, the punchline was coming.  And when it did, it was completely worth the wait.  The puns and wit fly fast and furious; one hopes that Pratchett's next book will be about the redoubtable Solomon as he proves a font of knowledge and an excellent sidekick.  Dodger's rise is meteoric (he's kind of like a Horatio Alger hero), but it is well-deserved: his code is honorable (even if he just can't resist a gewgaw or two from Miss Burdett-Coutts' collection), and his cleverness is rightfully rewarded. He falls hard for Miss Simplicity (the weakest part of the story), but there's no doubt of a happily ever-after.

Like nearly all of Pratchett's novels, this one is narrated by Stephen Briggs. (Here, here and here is where I've heard him read Pratchett before.)  He's good; he's an excellent match with Pratchett's rapid-fire jokes, whiplashing plot developments and all-around silliness. The humor is always there, but there's also an underlying compassion and love of the characters. There's never a word out of place, and his characters are varied and consistently delivered. He's particularly good with Solomon's Yiddish inflections, as well as those of Dodger's fellow toshers. There is a scene where Dodger is interviewing his peers, along with a group of rather dim prostitutes, about whether they might have seen Simplicity's assailants that is just brilliant.

But, you know, I'd really like to hear someone else read this. Briggs' style doesn't change much from Pratchett to Pratchett -- he reads them all with that punchy, rapid delivery. It's funny, it's successful, but it's time for someone else.  I don't know who I'd suggest -- oh wait, yes I do.  Alan Cumming!  Barking brilliant (if I may say so myself)!  There are a couple Pratchett books that aren't narrated by Briggs, maybe I'll give one of them a whirl.

[Yes, I could have given you a picture of Dickens, or Peel, or Burdett-Coutts, or even Onan (well, perhaps not, but the dog is on the cover of the British version), but I opted for my very own Dodger: a three-legged cat who was named because he wasn't ... artful.]

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Narrated by Stephen Briggs
Dreamscape Media, 2012.  10:31

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