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Mr. Timothy Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 21, 2003
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Tiny Tim is back! No, not the squeaky-voiced troubadour who tip-toed through tulips in the 1960s, but the original--Timothy Cratchit, the crutch-wielding tyke from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Only now he's a "mostly able-bodied" 23 years old, resides in a London whorehouse in exchange for tutoring the madam, struggles to wean himself from financial dependence on his ancient "Uncle" Ebenezer Scrooge, and, as we learn in Louis Bayard's darkly enchanting historical thriller, Mr. Timothy, is haunted by the spirit of his late father--a man whose optimism and strength the son feels himself incapable of imitating.
When we first encounter Timothy, during the Christmas season of 1860, he's vexed by the discovery of two dead 10-year-old girls, each branded with the letter "G"--one found in an alley, the other fished from the Thames River by Cratchit and a voluble old salt who makes his money by finding (and then robbing, of course) errant corpses. Timothy's concern leads him to protect a third possessively marked waif, the frightened and suspicious Philomela--who, he soon realizes, is being sought by a knife-loving former Scotland Yard inspector and a moneyed, malevolent voluptuary. When, despite precautions, Philomela is kidnapped by her pursuers, Cratchit--assisted by a shrewd warbling urchin known as Colin the Melodious--resolves to fulfill his "great calling" in life by mounting a rescue. However, this mission will force the habitually uncourageous Timothy to not only defend himself against sexual molestation charges, storm a well-guarded mansion, and solve the puzzle of a coffin-filled basement, but also engage in a nightmarish final chase along London's docklands.
Authors employing real-life characters as detectives are often hampered by their adherence to historical fact. Bayard suffers no such limitations in imagining what fates awaited Dickens's now-famous fictional figures. Under his pen, Scrooge--whose rooms are decorated for Christmas year-round--becomes an eccentric collector of fungi and host to an interminable stream of charity solicitors, while Timothy Cratchit strikes out beyond his lonely young man status to become the head of an unconventional clan. Bayard's appreciation for the lurid exoticness of Victorian London rivals that of John MacLachlan Gray (The Fiend in Human), while his lyrical prose subtly suggests 19th-century influences. Mr. Timothy is at once a compelling Christmas crime yarn and an audacious literary endeavor. No humbug there. --J. Kingston Pierce
From Publishers Weekly
Bayard's first two novels (Fool's Errand; Endangered Species) were contemporary romantic comedies, a far cry from his third, an audacious and triumphant entertainment that imagines the post-Christmas Carol life of Tiny Tim, transformed from an iconic representation of innocent suffering ("the iron brace was bought by a salvager long ago, and the crutch went for kindling") into a fully realized young adult struggling to find his place in a cruel world. Having lost his parents and become estranged from his remaining family as well from as reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Timothy Cratchit has found a niche in a brothel as the tutor to its madam. Haunted by his failure to connect with his father, as well as by his father's ghost, Timothy has developed a thick skin to guard against the oppressive misery endemic to 1860s London. His defenses are penetrated when he encounters Philomela, a 10-year-old waif who has been mysteriously abused. With the assistance of a singing street urchin called Colin the Melodious and a maimed retired seafarer, he pursues the source of her torment and its connection with another child whose branded body was dumped in an obscure alley. The quest becomes more quixotic when evidence points to the aristocracy, abetted by a corrupt police force, but with Philomela taking an active role, the quartet narrow in on their target. With surprising but plausible twists, and a visceral, bawdy evocation of Victorian London, Bayard has crafted a page-turner of a thriller that is elevated beyond its genre by its endearingly flawed hero for whom nothing human is alien.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Alas, the story that ensues barely references Dicken’s immortal tale, and is none the better for it. Instead of the noble, selfless Tiny Tim of memory, Bayard presents us with a whining wastrel of a young man – petulant, aimless and ungrateful. Thanks to the generosity of his “Uncle En,” he’s been well tended and well educated. But he’s not particularly grateful for either, and then uses the death of his father as an excuse to give up on life entirely. Seriously, he moves into a whorehouse and makes a living by dredging occasional corpses from the Thames for the reward money – can a life get any more bleak?
Things take a turn when our "Mr. Timothy" becomes obsessed by the deaths of a series of young women, each sporting the same mysterious tattoo on their shoulder, each with hands frozen into hideous claws by rictus. Bayard never bothers to provide any psychological or emotional explanation for this obsession, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making it seem a little creepy and pedophilic. In the end Tim plays the hero, rescuing the damsels from their distress, but by then Bayard has done such a thorough job of robbing us of sympathy for his main character that I was never quite sure which way the novel was headed – would Tim turn out to be Dudley Doo-right … or Humbert Humbert?
I also had a problem with Bayard’s prose, which seemed overly-lush and melodramatic. Instead of drawing me into the story, his overwritten descriptions were a persistent distraction. If you want to write like William Faulkner, then you need to pick a plot heavy enough to carry the weight. The plot of this novel, in contrast, is about as silly and predictable as a gothic romance.
Which isn’t to imply that there’s nothing redeeming in the tale. Bayard populates his yarn with a cast of eccentric characters that Dickens would surely approve of, from a crusty old sea-captain with a wrench for a hand to a boozy madam whose greatest aspiration is to learn to read. There’s even a precocious orphan. And a parrot. Bayard’s descriptions of London circa ~1850 are detailed, authentic, and evocative. Also, the way Tim keeps seeing the ghost of his father in the faces of strangers on the street was, I thought, not only a tasteful bow to the source material, but oddly authentic and moving – a reminder that though encounters with ghosts of the Past/Present/Future-type may be rare, all of us know what it is like to be haunted by the memories of the people we have loved and lost.
Perhaps others will be more forgiving than me, but I can’t help resenting Bayard for plucking beloved characters like Tiny Tim and Ebeneezer Scrooge from the pages of fiction only to manipulate them in such a callous and inconsistent fashion. Either treat the source material with the dignity it deserves, or have the courage to create your own characters rather than exploiting the fond memories of readers just to make a few extra sales.
Tim Cratchit's father has died, it is again Christmas, and Tim ends up boarding at a brothel in exchange for teaching the brothel's owner to read. Tim's "Uncle N," Ebenezer Scrooge, gives him an allowance, but it is dependent on Tim's visiting him. Rather than be tied to Ebenezer in this fashion, Tim disappears and hence finds himself at the brothel.
After seeing two dead girls with a peculiar brand on their skin, Tim becomes involved with a third young girl named Philomela when he sees her running in the night and realizes she also has the brand. This throws him into a strange and brutal world that is controlled by a powerful man.
Louis Bayard writes beautifully, and his books are always full of great descriptive language. This book has wonderful language and an engrossing plot. If you are concerned that this book might be an injustice to A Christmas Carol, please know that it is also quite Dickensian in its language and plot. I highly recommend this book!
I thought the writing style was excellent - Bayard does a great job of invoking language that is appropriate for the setting. Be prepared for some tough vocab, though. The story is complicated and well-developed. Some of the characters are interesting, but others seem unnecessary because they aren't looked at in enough detail to be significant. This is the kind of book that requires the reader's full attention; don't expect to read this at super-speed or while distracted or you may find yourself missing important bits of the plot.
I think describing this as a literary mystery is accurate ("thriller" is too strong). There is enough intrigue for mystery fans and enough depth for people who are into straight literary fiction. Regardless, I really enjoyed this and will be reading more of Bayard's novels.