Review for Black Jack, by Leon Garfield:
Black Jack is a strange novel, in that it's both very good and somewhat bad. It's historical fiction that takes place in mid 18th-century London, and follows a young teenager named Bartholomew Dorking. Kidnapped by the villainous and enormous Black Jack, who survived his own hanging, Bartholomew (Tolly) finds himself dragged around the country and involved in all sorts of criminal schemes. He rescues a young escaped lunatic along the way, and they grow close, and together they must face a world of danger and malicious people.
The author certainly evokes the ordinariness of lower-class and illicit city life, and he does a great job with minor characters. Like Dickens, all of the secondary characters are exaggerated and one-dimensional, serving straightforward purposes. Garfield does not do so well with the characters of Tolly and Black Jack. I never understood them, and they did things that I never expected based on their characters. I was happy with their progression by the end of the novel, but I didn't get how they arrived there.
What Garfield does well is tell an engaging story, create atmospheres of danger, grim reality, and fast-paced excitement, and show people and society at their most basic and unpleasant. When the book is good, it's quite good, but it was boring in several places. The bright spots are so bright that I definitely recommend this book to others, but I caution you not to expect too much. You can't get terribly attached to the characters; at least, I couldn't.
It could just be me. The praise for Garfield in the front of the book, from authors like Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, and others is truly astounding. Garfield has a very distinct style, and it may be that his style just doesn't resonate with me.