In Catherine Jinks’ latest novel, Theophilus Grey and the Demon Thief (Allen and Unwin), 12-year-old Theophilus Grey, known as Philo, is the leader of a team of link boys. In 18th century London, theirs is a necessary job, escorting clients home late at night by torchlight. There is rivalry between them and the newer lamp lighters, but they still have plenty of work. Philo and his crew work for a former law clerk, Garnet Hooke, who is too ill to leave his home and has made a new career both as the employer of the team and someone who gathers information for the magistrates, for payment. A third occupation is as a “cunning man,” a sort of male version of a wise woman, giving advice. That becomes important in the course of the novel.
Now some people in London’s underworld are beginning to drop into unconsciousness for no apparent reason, and the word is spreading that the reasons are supernatural. Philo is prepared to consider that possibility, and try to find out who — or what — is behind it all. Is there a connection between this and the sudden crime wave in the area? Will he find out what is going in before anyone he cares about is hurt?
This book, like Catherine Jinks’ other historical novels, has clearly been thoroughly researched to draw the reader into the era in which it is set. There is the sight, smell and flavour of 18th century England, and the slang of the time, with a handy glossary at the end for anyone who couldn’t work it out from context. It’s a world in which a 12-year-old boy is mature enough to lead a team and feel responsibility for them. His quick wits and knowledge of the streets and lawbreakers of London save his clients from being robbed on the way home and even save lives.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I read, of Leon Garfield, who wrote a lot of children’s historical fiction set in the same era — and I must dip me lid to this author, who has written convincingly about a number of eras, from the Middle Ages to the time in which this novel is set.
It would have been nice to have a brief note at the end about the historical background, especially as the author refers frequently to a certain magistrate whom young readers wouldn’t know was a famous novelist as well.
I did feel it took a while for the story to build up, perhaps a little too long before the hero began to move from wondering what was going on to try to do something to find out. But it did speed up after the slow burn.
Recommended for children from late primary to early secondary school. ◊
Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog, The Great Raven, can be found at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com.