Set in the teaming tumultuous London underworld of the 1720s, The Fatal Tree begins with Edgworth Bess working as a maid in a stately house in Edgworth, then a village outside London. She had lived in the house all her life and was on familiar terms with the children of the lord of the manor, Sir Wickham Steevens. Such familiarity would be her undoing and after she turned 15, Bess is seduced by Richard Steevens, the master’s son.
When they are discovered by Richard’s mother, Bess is dismissed from her position and taking the advice of a fellow servant travels to London. In London Bess, is something of a country bumpkin, an innocent abroad, an ingénue.
All this soon changes when Bess encounters Punk Alice who soon sets her on the course of prostitution. Like everything else Bess takes it in her stride, she in no way bemoans her lot. She adjusts quickly learning both the ways and the language of the streets.
We follow Bess on her various ups and downs in London, or Romeville as it is called in the thieves’ cant. She encounters Jack Shepperd, then an apprentice carpenter, though in time he will become notorious thief and gaol breaker. Over time, on account of their criminal exploits, Bess and Shepperd would gain fame and notoriety.
Mention must also be made of Jonathan Wild, a self-appointed “Thief-taker General” and force of evil in the novel. It is to Wild the good and great turn to in order to maintain law and order in London. In reality, organised crime in London is run by Jonathan Wild, who rules the mean streets of the city with a rod of steel.
The Fatal Tree is framed by the narrative of Billy Archer, a Grub Street journalist and failed poet. Billy relates both his own story and that of Bess through a series of letters written to his employer.
Billy’s story intersects and mirrors that of Bess and Jack Sheppard. As a “molly” a homosexual, Billy is an outcast in society. He must be furtive in his dealings lest he find himself on the wrong side of the law.
Archer is employed to write the last testament of Bess prior to their execution. However untoward and grisly this practice may appear to 21st century readers apparently in the 18th century it was all the rage and journalist were expected to procure, for prosperity, print and profit the last words of convicted felons.
At the back of the novel there is a useful glossary of words and phrases all of which are used quite liberally throughout the story. Language is used in much the same manner as it is in A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker. It defines the protagonists and serves as a key to enter their world. For example, here is Bess talking about preachers and how they blame women for leading men astray:
“The soul-drivers always peach the mort for being the tempter of the cove.”
London, the setting for the novel, is described in both grim and graphic detail. The grimy streets and hostile atmosphere are rendered credible and are honestly not conducive for a long and healthy life.
At one point London is described in the following manner that sounds somewhat contemporary:
“And so it grows, a great emporium, a fat best of commerce that wallows on the river with the lucky few feeding on its body, the rest scavenging in its waste.”
In this novel nothing is as it seems, the cant language hides through meaning, Jonathan Wild is really a ganglord and people must hide their true identity.
Any Cop?: The Fatal Tree is a remarkably well crafted novel with terrific plot and character development. As well as the general reader this novel will be enjoyed by those who have a love of language or an interest in historical London.