It's always fun when an impulse book buy turns out to be really good: it excuses all those other reckless buys that languish unread on my already stuffed book shelves. James Benmore's Dodger wasn't an impulse buy, exactly - as a Dickens fan and defender of sequels, I was almost honour bound to buy it - but it wasn't a book I had great hopes for, and I stumbled across it by chance. Surprisingly, though, it turned out to be one of most satisfying specimens of the sequel/prequel/retelling of classic genre I've encountered.
As the title suggests, the novel tells us what happened next to the Artful Dodger a.k.a. Jack Dawkins in Oliver Twist. I like the Dodger well enough, but I have sometimes been bemused by his great renown as a character. As Benmore's novel reminds us, Dodger is transported to Australia long before Dickens's novel reaches its climax. In an overwhelming number of adaptations of Oliver Twist, though, he stays around until the very end. In these adaptations, it's often Dodger who spies on Nancy (not knowing how Fagin will twist his words to infuriate Bill Sikes) - in the novel, it's Noah Claypole. Also, we often see Dodger standing up to Sikes after he's killed Nancy, when in fact it's Charley Bates - the only one of Fagin's boys we know goes straight after the harrowing incidents in Oliver Twist - who turns on Sikes. The Artful seems to have away of charming people to want to see more of him. An interesting exception is the ITV adaptation of Oliver Twist, with Marc Warren as Monks and Robert Lindsay as Fagin (yes, in this adaptation, this is the right order). Dodger is there until the end all right, but instead of being a perky little urchin he and the other members of Fagin's gang are gangly, unglamorous teenagers with a certain hoodie feel. Alan Bleasdale, who wrote this adaptation, clearly wasn't charmed by Dodger for one minute.
Perhaps Dodger's appeal depends partly on the fact that he is the first person Oliver encounters who is nice to him (well, the only one with any guts at any rate - Mr Sowerberry was not much use to the poor boy). Dodger's motives may be self-interested - he's recruiting new boys for Fagin's gang - but all the same, at this stage in the story, you feel as grateful as Oliver when he's shown a little kindness. The prominent part Dodger plays in the musical Oliver!, with a starring role in the catchy numbers "Consider yourself" and "I'd do anything", is surely also of benefit to his reputation. But let's not be churlish: Dickens's Dodger is an appealingly cheeky character with a gift of the gab, and in Benmore's novel he certainly lives up to the hype.
Benmore catches Dodger's tone and cheerful amorality, which never quite sours to resentment, perfectly. Dodger's narrative is funny and colourful throughout (I'm increasingly thankful for books that are funny: the fun parts, as Dickens knew, don't make the serious parts of a novel less poignant.) The story is exciting, a little like a traditional treasure hunt but where lives are at stake. There are pleasingly Dickensian new characters as well as old acquaintances from Fagin's day. The villainous Lord Evershed is on the mad side, but does his stuff, and his henchman Timothy Pin is first class in the supporting villain role. Last but not least, there are numerous references to other Dickens novels, from small details (Dodger goes back to England on the Son and Heir, the ship that later sinks in Dombey and Son) to significant guest appearances (a meeting with Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield has a significant impact on Dodger's love interest Ruby).
I love this sort of thing, especially when it's done well as it is here. The only thing that bothered me was that Fagin's boys seem to blame Oliver Twist (whom Dodger hardly remembers) for Fagin's arrest and hanging. But it was Noah Claypole who peached on Fagin, not Oliver (yes, he told Mr Brownlow and others about what Fagin was up to, but only to clear his own name). I applaud Dodger's fond feelings for Fagin, though, and heartily concur with the sentiment that it was in poor taste to bring Oliver to visit the Fagin when he was about to be hanged as a sort of example to the boy. Oliver doesn't appear in Dodger, but will apparently play a part in the follow-up novel Dodger of the Dials. I hope any misunderstanding between the two young men will be cleared up then.