Review published on April 16, 2017.
Jake Arnott is probably best known for the book and film The Long Firm, which is set in sixties London among the criminal gangs.
In The Fatal Tree, he treads the same path, but now we are plunged into the 1720s. The central theme – a poor girl is thrown out of the big country house where she worked after her dalliance with the lord of the manor’s son is discovered – is not new, but her descent into theft, prostitution and blackmail and her eventual rise through the criminal ranks is entertainingly told. The novel is based on a true story with a mix of real and imagined characters. Edgworth Bess, actually existed and she tells part of the story. William Archer is a fictional character, a would-be writer, and his account fills in the blanks for us.
Theft, blackmail and cross-dressing abound as Bess finds her feet among the criminal fraternity. Real characters include writers such as John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Daniel Defoe. Jack Sheppard, a notorious criminal and charming rogue, and Jonathan Wild, a thief-taker, also impinge on Bess’s life and liberty. Bess and Jack’s life makes them sound like Bonnie and Clyde as they egg each other on to worse crimes and more daring escapes. The fatal tree is of course the gallows, but not every character will swing from its branches.
The characters have quirky names – Joe Blueskin, Punk Alice and Poll Maggot – and the author has researched the period well. The language deserves a review all to itself and it is this that makes the book stand out from others with similar themes. The ‘cant’ seems impenetrable at first, but as you read the sense becomes clear. There is a glossary that is very useful. I likes ‘oss chives’ for bone-handled knives; ‘darkmans and lightmans’ for night and day; ‘filching and fencing’ for stealing and selling on. The countryside is Daisyville and London is Romeville. It makes for a lively read. The ending made me realise that it is more than a novel and Jake Arnott’s plea for information is very touching.
Fans of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet will enjoy this book.
Dorothy Anderson 4/4
The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott
Sceptre 9781473637740 hbk Feb 2017