"Mr. Timothy" by Louis Bayard

Dickens' formerly cute Tiny Tim is all grown up now, in this tale of murder and mystery in foggy Victorian London -- a long way from those sappy Cratchit Christmases.

By Salon Staff
Published December 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Tiny Tim is "not so tiny any more, that's a fact," Louis Bayard (an occasional Salon contributor) informs us at the outset of his richly imagined, deeply compelling Victorian thriller, "Mr. Timothy," which tracks down the sweet, sickly little boy from Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" and follows him on his own haunting adventures through London's foggy bowels.

At 23, Bayard's Timothy Cratchit still has a bit of trouble with the leg here and there, but thanks to the patronage of "Uncle N" -- as he and his siblings have come to call Ebenezer Scrooge, their late father's employer who now spends his days giving away money and collecting fungi -- his once-trademark crutch and leg brace have long since been discarded and his health largely restored.

Bayard has cast young Tim not as mere character, but as narrator as well, a narrator well aware that he has wrenched control of his own story from other tellers -- his father, for one, and his Uncle N -- much as Bayard has confidently taken over where Dickens has left off and trundled us straight into his own vision of Christmas future, circa 1860.

It's a far cry from those treacly Cratchit Christmases past, and the contrast is not lost on Tim. In a note to his dead father, whose ghost he glimpses here passing him on the street and there napping in doorways, Bayard's Tim conjures memories of his childhood and writes: "The mistake I made in those days -- pardonable, I hope, in one so young -- lay in thinking that by occupying your narrative, I might exert some authorial power over it. But in fact, the more thoroughly I inhabited it, the more completely it became your story. It took me many years to scribble out my own, which, I shouldn't have been surprised to learn, was rather different from the one you and I created." Far from the cringingly noble little fella who memorably declared "God bless us, every one," this Tim "was much angrier, for one thing, terribly angry. And funnier, too: that was a surprise."

Tim's story turns out to be more darkly chilling than humorous. And though he himself may limp -- "which to hear others tell it is not a limp but a lilt, a slight hesitation my right leg makes before greeting the pavement, a metrical shyness," or, as he likes to call it, his "hitch-stride" -- "Mr. Timothy" glides along fast and smooth, like a shade on pressing business.

Educated and dressed like a gentleman, Tim, still mourning the death of his father, has taken up residence in a brothel, where he receives room and board in exchange for teaching the mistress of the house -- henna-wigged, crinoline-favoring Mrs. Ophelia Sharpe -- to read.

Cut off for a time -- by his own choice -- from what's left of his family, Tim stumbles across a series of bodies, young girls around age 10 with hands bloodied and frozen in the form of talons and upper arms branded with the letter G.

"Not a tattoo, nothing so mild as that," Tim stresses. "A brand. The skin not dyed but blistered, seared, like the flanks of a Jersey. And what did you read there? A letter, that was all, an inch and a half in diameter. G. Except there was more. Beneath the upper loop, a pair of eyes had been likewise burnt into the skin. And those eyes had the strange effect of turning the letter into something quite palpably alive."

Tim soon befriends a young girl named Philomela, a comely orphan from Italy whom he tries to rescue from meeting a similar violent end, and Colin the Melodious, an enterprising street tough with the voice of an angel and a taste for "Ad-ven-ture." Together, the three of them navigate the treacherous streets of London, filled as they are with the greedy, the needy and the sexually depraved, and set about solving the mysterious murders before the murderers in question -- who have a nasty predilection for cutting the throats of anyone who gets in their way -- kill them.

It's a tense, rollicking ride with more bumps, twists and hairpin turns than a hansom cab yanked down a winding cobblestone street by a team of wild horses and more heart than, well, than one might expect from a tale narrated by a man who at first seems to have forgotten that he has one.

But by the time the tightly wound story tick-tocks its way to its inevitable conclusion, Tim, like old Scrooge before him, has learned some valuable lessons about love and family and the worth of reaching out and helping those less fortunate. Perhaps, ultimately, Bayard has taken us on a transformative journey not unlike Dickens' after all. And taught us a thing or two about morality along the way.

-- Amy Reiter

Our next pick: Beneath the tweedy surface of its north-of-England setting, Pat Barker's tense new novel is really about violence and its consequences

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