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Having co-authored an academic "study of the life and work of two professional Victorian clowns" with Jacky Bratton in 2006, Ann Featherstone's intimate insight into that iconic era's grim underbelly suffused her crime fiction debut to the extent that it possessed an edge of authenticity near-enough second to none. In the wake of Walking in Pimlico, Featherstone's oft-acclaimed contemporaries Sarah Waters and Michel Faber would have been well to watch out. As a rich and unflinching tapestry of a time lost to us, it truly excelled; as a cracking murder mystery yarn, it proved unputdownable. Featherstone's latest novel, The Newgate Jig, is more of the same, and ominous though that might sound, in this case, that's a fine thing indeed. If it ain't broke, what's to fix?
The Newgate Jig comes frontloaded with what must be the single most effective scene Featherstone has produced us to date. In the prologue, Barney, "a thin, pale-faced boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, whose clothes were once good ones... but which are now worn and shabby," watches his father hung for a crime he did not commit, while around him a hungry crowd hollers for the noose which will sever Barney's only connection to the world. In the awful aftermath, orphaned and alone, Barney swears to "serve out" the man responsible for his father's wrongful slaughter, setting in motion a chain of events which only Bob Chapman and His Sagacious Canines can hope to halt.
Chapman has carved out a meager existence for himself as a moderately popular entertainer amongst the seedy sideshows the ill-named Aquarium has to offer, yet he has little to call his own. His darling dogs, Brutus and Nero; the dream of a day he can afford to buy a cart and a horse and so approach the makings of an honest living; and a few friends: Will Lovegrove, dashing and dearly beloved star of the silver stage, and Fortinbras Horatio Trimmer, an overworked penny dreadful author with grand aspirations. When of a morning Barney steals dear Trim's latest manuscript, apparently in collaboration with "the Nasty Man," Chapman finds himself drawn inexorably into a world torn asunder.
For all that he has a certain difficulty expressing himself, either to complain or to congratulate - and he'll have call to do both as The Newgate Jig hopscotches along - Chapman makes for a literate and appealingly idiosyncratic narrator. He and his dogs are adorable, and their presence works as a warm and welcoming respite from the seedy intrigue and dark deeds he, hapless, stumbles upon. And don't think those dark deeds have been toned down for mass consumption: as per The Newgate Jig, there's some truly perverse stuff going on in, around and indeed under London.
That said, the crime in this crime fiction comes second to the fiction. As with Walking in Pimlico, Featherstone is more interesting in the dank and lively city in which the crime takes place and the deftly-drawn characters she scatters throughout its highways and byways than she is by either the crime itself or its inevitable unraveling. Stalwart fans of the genre may thus find themselves underwhelmed, but if you're up for a whistle-stop tour of a remarkably rendered world and a living, breathing cast rather than a list of potential suspects, there's nothing quite like Featherstone's second novel proper. Measured, wonderfully memorable, bona fide without ever feeling painstakingly so, and a rollicking good time from end to end, The Newgate Jig is a delight, if rather more slight than I'd have liked. And what is that but the highest order of recommendation?
Please, miss, can I 'ave some more?
The Newgate Jig
by Ann Featherstone