Smith by Leon Garfield

Stand and deliver…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

smith 2Smith is a twelve-year old pickpocket surviving by his wits in the London of the 18th century. But one day Smith picks the pocket of an elderly man and as he runs away, he sees the man being attacked and killed. Running for fear that he will be caught and accused of this much worse crime, Smith has to wait to find out what he managed to steal – a document, clearly official, but that’s as much as he can tell since he can’t read. But Smith knows documents are worth money and he’s determined to find out what it says…

This book is always marketed as if for children and it certainly is suitable for any child from about ten or eleven, I’d say. But it is also entirely suitable for adult consumption and very enjoyable. Who wouldn’t enjoy a story about pickpockets, highwaymen, mysterious documents and murder? Like Treasure Island or the Quatermain books, this is complex and well written enough to satisfy even a demanding adult, while having enough excitement and adventure to appeal to a younger audience. And, because of its historical setting, it hasn’t suffered from age.

Garfield’s skill is in creating an entirely believable setting and filling it with interesting characters – sympathetic good guys, villainous bad guys and several that fall somewhere between the two. Smith himself is a mixture of hard-nosed thief who will do anything to survive and soft-hearted child who can’t stop himself from helping Mr Mansfield, a blind gentleman whom he meets by accident while on his quest to learn to read. Mr Mansfield is a man who believes in law and justice but who gradually learns the meaning of trust and pity, while his daughter devotes herself to protecting him from anyone who might wish to take advantage of his blindness or good-nature. Together with Smith’s sisters and Lord Tom, the highwayman, all the characters are slightly caricatured in the way Dickens’ characters are.

Leon Garfield
Leon Garfield

And the Dickens comparison extends to the setting – this London, its streets and jails, its dirt and poverty, and the heaths around it where the highwaymen ruled could have come straight from the pages of the master himself. But, unlike Dickens’ little pickpocket Oliver Twist, Smith is not sickeningly good – he’s more of an Artful Dodger, trained by the circumstances of his life to rely on his own wits to survive. The one concession Garfield makes to a younger readership is to keep the language and sentence structure simpler than Dickens, making this an easier and shorter read, but without ever condescending or patronising the reader. And the simpler language still allows room for some great writing and imagery…

Even great ladies came and went – their huge skirts swinging and pealing down the doleful passages like so many brocaded bells, tolling:

What a pity. What a shame. Dick’s to die on Tuesday week. What a pity. What a shame. Poor Mr Mulrone.

I first read this book many years ago and am often reluctant to re-read a book that I remember with pleasure in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. In this case, I enjoyed it just as much again and look forward to reading more of Garfield’s work. Highly recommended to young and old alike.

This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYR Children’s Collection. Just to mention that this edition has Americanized spelling which, since it’s an American publisher, I’ll forgive. However, I’ve changed the spelling back to British in my quotes – nothing in the world could make me spell ‘draught’ with an ‘f’!

Amazon UK link
Amazon US Link

20 thoughts on “Smith by Leon Garfield

  1. FictionFan – There are definitely some books such as this one that are just simply good stories. The fact that they’re really well-written suspense stories transcends things such as era, target market and so on. In my opinion it’s one of the reasons for which classics such as this one never really go away. Thanks for the reminder of that.


  2. This books is definitely an interest. The story line appeals to the professor. But you should cheat a bit. What was the document? I know you won’t answer. Oh well.

    😆 Can’t help laughing. I didn’t even recognize the word without it’s ‘f’!


    • I thought this might appeal to you – you really should add it to your TBR! I’m about 80% sure you’d enjoy it. Nope, not telling…

      😆 Tchah! You Americans! Not just the ‘u’ that’s been victimised this time…


        • I know I’m not best placed to give advice on reducing TBRs, but I find reading the books helps… 😉

          OK, it was a map to a hidden stash of chocolate guarded by a host of Giant Worms…no-one was brave enough to battle them, until a mysterious Professor arrived from his home in….well, wherever he lives…and tricked them by laying a cunning trail of cashew nuts to the edge of a steep cliff, which he had previously coated with slippery grease. It was gruesome! Then the Professor gave all the chocolate to the heroine…

          Yes, you would! (Or shold that be wold?)


          • 😆 The professor knows how to say no to books. He’s very good at it. 😀

            😆 😆 Very creative, FEF! I might hire you one day to write for the PL… 😉 (But there seems to be one problem. In the story, that dadblame professor character seems to lack discriminating wit. I’m almost sure no one would waste cashews like that.) Who was the heroine? I do hope she helped. Otherwise she wouldn’t deserve the reward.

            I do like it that way better. The professor is cool with that. Now to convince the government.


            • That’s only because he doesn’t have a Kindle. (You can get a Kindle App for a Mac, you know…)

              😆 Ooh, then Schwarzy could be in every story!!

              Waste? One would think that this Professor is suggesting that that Professor should have put his own selfish greed above the desire to win the chocolate for the heroine. I know which of those Professors I think has more discriminating wit… She did help – she ate the chocolate…

              The govt of the *SA, wold that be?


  3. great review. I love Garfield – how about reviewing “Jack Holborn” next – I’m sure people would enjoy it.
    Enjoyed your draft/draught comments – I don’t know if you remember (generation gap!) that we had one uncle who was a “draftsman” in America and another who was a “draughtsman” in Canada, where they still used the UK spelling.


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