‘To get a confession from a proud male factor, it is always better to call for a poet than a priest.’ These are the wise words of William Archer, the narrator of part of The Fatal Tree and the notional editor of the rest. Mind you, he’s biased: he aspires to be a poet, though he is at best a ‘garreteer’, one of the Grub Street hacks who provide better writers than themselves with lurid copy about the early Georgian underworld they live in.
Archer’s world is the ‘Hundreds of Drury’, the streets and alleys around Drury Lane where the thieves, prostitutes and con men ply their trades. Known as Romeville in the thieves’ cant that colours so much of this novel, it holds up a dark mirror to the great metropolis around it. Romeville has its own laws and customs, its own heroes and villains. Immortalised by Defoe, Gay and Fielding, it both terrifies and fascinates the public.
Archer is fictional, but most of the other main characters are not. Among them is the infinitely sinister Jonathan Wild, the self-styled ‘Thieftaker General of Great Britain and Ireland’, who plays each side of the law against the other to his own advantage. His feud with Jack Shepherd, the charismatic burglar who refuses to accept his authority, is one factor leading to his eventual downfall.
But the voice we hear most clearly is that of Edgeworth Bess, a prostitute who loves Jack but knows his weaknesses. In February 1726, at the start of the novel, she is imprisoned in Newgate. She dictates her life story to Archer in ‘flash’, the thieves’ language, while she waits to end her life on the ‘Fatal Tree’ at Tyburn.
In parallel with her story, Archer unfolds his own, for a reason that becomes fully apparent only at the end. He belongs to the homosexual subculture that finds a degree of tolerance within Romeville. He’s also a ‘spruce prig’, a thief who dresses like the gentry and apes their mannners.
Jake Arnott, who is probably best known for excellent novels such as The Long Firm about London gangsters in the 1960s, has done much more than update the work of his 18th-century predecessors. Unlike them, he shows the citizens of Romeville as people, not as folk heroes or bogeymen, and he does this without prurience or sentimentality.
In doing so, he gives us a convincing and densely textured picture of the world they live in. He doesn’t spare the reader the fruits of his research. If sentences like ‘I touted peery of the prig-napper by lightmans’ make you feel queasy, this may not be the novel for you. The rest of us will scurry to the glossary at the end of the book.
It’s worth the effort. The Fatal Tree is not just a sophisticated exercise in historical pastiche. Arnott explores what poor Bess calls ‘the felony of love’, a crime that is not on the statute book. The result is powerful, poignant and readable.