Jake Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, was published way back in 1999. I was a huge fan: he summoned up London’s underworld in prose as sharp as a ‘60s mobster’s suit, expertly blending fact with fiction. A hard act to follow, then, and sorry to say Arnott’s never quite matched it for me but I’ve stuck with him, ever hopeful, and The Fatal Tree proves that fidelity can win out. It’s a triumph – a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash, gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang.
In 1726 Edgeworth Bess is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Billy Archer has petitioned Mr Applebee, a publisher of confessions popular at public hangings, to commission him to tell Bess’ story. Bess began life in the home of a noble family – the daughter of a servant, thrown out when she’s caught in bed with their son. With only the guinea he’s given her, she finds her way to London, easy meat for the city’s madams eager for fresh faces. Punk Alice saves her from the worst of them, installing her in Mother Breedlove’s bawdy academy where she learns how to please both the punters and herself. Smart and sassy, she’s soon at home amongst the denizens of Romeville, a buttock-and-file who whores and picks pockets, attracting the attention of both Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed Thief-taker General, and Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice who puts his skills to use as an expert burglar. Bess and Jack fall for each other hard. Jack’s strutting arrogance will trip him up badly but his jail-breaking skills will make him a legend while Bess will need her sharp-as-a-tack wits to get him and herself out of trouble, all under the gaze of Wild who holds Romeville in his grubby sway. Alongside Bess’ story, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion.
Arnott alternates Bess’ confession, told in her own words with Billy’s letters to Applebee. Written in flash, Bess’ sections will have you frequently diving into the glossary at first but, rather like The Wire, once you have your ear in, so to speak, her narrative is easy to follow. Arnott keeps the tension nicely taut with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing throughout, liberally lacing his story with both the salaciousness promised in Billy’s first letter and a fair dose of humour. The period detail is vivid, descriptions of the thieves’ dens nicely lurid, but Arnott takes care not to get too caught up in what has clearly been meticulous research, rounding out his characters so that they leap off the page. John Gay wanders through Billy’s narrative, a frequent acquaintance, keeping his ear to the ground. There are echoes of our own times both in the language – I think we’d all like to see ‘impeach’ in common use soon – and in the tidal wave of greed preceding the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.
I can’t finish this without quoting a few more of my favourite flash expressions: gospel-shop a church; glaziers eyes; pot-valiant drunk; dandyprat a puny little fellow; caper-merchant a dancing master and prattle-broth tea. I long for a way to work these into the conversation.