Twelve-year-old Smith has little ambition in life. His two sisters, Miss Bridget and Miss Fanny, eke out a meager living for the threesome altering clothes the hangman acquires from his “clients” at the local prison. Nimble fingers must be a family trait, for Smith does his part to supplement their salary with contributions from the pockets of his fellow Londoners. He knows the streets and alleys of the city like the palm of his hand, and his swift, furtive ways have kept him out of trouble – so far.
Smith is more child than criminal, however. He steals to survive. Thus, he is aghast when he witnesses the murder of one of his own victims at the hands of two men in brown. How could the document he stole be so valuable as to be worth killing an elderly gentleman to obtain? The two men in brown and their peg-legged employer must know. Smith, on the other hand, does not, for he cannot read. Now he must find someone to teach him so he can decipher this mysterious paper before the men in brown find him. In his search for a mentor, Smith encounters a blind magistrate, a kind-hearted maid and assorted villains. In spite of his life on the streets, Smith still has the trusting, sensitive heart of a child. The devastating betrayal of friends never prevents him from forgiving, and his generosity reflects a greatness of soul hidden under his rags.
Leon Garfield’s descriptive style captivates the reader from the first lines of this murder mystery. His rich imagery brings to life eighteenth century England with sophisticated vocabulary and colorful characters reminiscent of Charles Dickens. The New York Review has, once again, revived a gem of children’s literature.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.