Amy Myers is known for her short stories and historical novels featuring Victorian chef Auguste Didier and chimney sweep Tom Wasp. Her contemporary series features classic car detective Jack Colby, and she is currently working on a new 1920s mystery series featuring Nell Drury, chef at Kent’s Wychbourne Court.
The Newgate Jig is the excellent successor to Ann Featherstone’s debut novel Walking in Pimlico published by John Murray in 2009. Her skilful hand dances a jig of its own in this fine novel, set in the darker side of Victorian London.
The Newgate Jig is slang for a hanging, which at the time of the novel is still a public ‘entertainment’. The prologue to Ann Featherstone’s new novel features one such Jig, which is agonisingly witnessed by the victim’s young son Barney to whom this miscarriage of justice is no entertainment. ‘I will serve him out,’ he vows; his father will be avenged.
Barney is not the protagonist of this novel however. It is narrated by one of the gentlest and most memorable of characters, which makes the horror of what happens in the novel and to him in particular all the more stark and compelling. Showman Bob Chapman is employed with his ‘Sagacious Canines’ Brutus and Nero at the East London Aquarium and Museum where their performances are well liked, and where he is in the company of such enticing companions as Princess Tiny, only twenty inches high, and her swain the giant Herr Swann. Bob also has friends aplenty from the nearby Pavilion Theatre, the penny-dreadful novelist and dramatist Fortinbras Trimmer and the actor Will Lovegrove. He will need them, for through meeting Barney he is drawn into the evil orbit and dark secrets of ‘the Nasty Man.’
Ann Featherstone is Lecturer in Performance History at Manchester University, and is known for her non-fiction books on Victorian entertainment. Her interest lies particularly in fairs, clowns, and penny gaffs, and her knowledge is so deeply rooted that in The Newgate Jig the reader seems to be struggling through the low life of London at Bob Chapman’s side, as Bob is tossed from the safe cocoon he has built for himself with Brutus and Nero into the depths of human evil. It is a world all the more believable because readers of Walking in Pimlico, which is set in roughly the same location, will recognise in its successor some familiar names. Corney Sage, ‘comic, clog-dancer, comic vocalist …’, who appeared in the earlier novel, is a background name in its successor, whereas Fortinbras Trimmer – a background name in Pimlico – now springs to life as terrific character in his own right. From such detail memorable series are built.
At the moving end of The Newgate Jig, therefore, I was left with only one vexing problem to solve: which did I prefer – Bob Chapman or Corney Sage? Impossible to answer. Solution: bring them both back, or more stars in the same series, and for many years to come.