The Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda returns to the nineteenth century in an utterly captivating mystery. The year is 1837 and a stranger is prowling London. He is Jack Maggs, an illegal returnee from the prison island of Australia. He has the demeanor of a savage and the skills of a hardened criminal, and he is risking his life on seeking vengeance and reconciliation.
Installing himself within the household of the genteel grocer Percy Buckle, Maggs soon attracts the attention of a cross section of London society. Saucy Mercy Larkin wants him for a mate. The writer Tobias Oates wants to possess his soul through hypnosis. But Maggs is obsessed with a plan of his own. And as all the various schemes converge, Maggs rises into the center, a dark looming figure, at once frightening, mysterious, and compelling. Not since Caleb Carr's The Alienist have the shadowy city streets of the nineteenth century lit up with such mystery and romance.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
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February 21, 1999
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Excerpt from Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
It was a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London. It was, to be precise, six of the clock on the fifteenth of April in the year of 1837 that those hooded eyes looked out the window of the Dover coach and beheld, in the bright aura of gas light, a golden bull and an overgrown mouth opening to devour him--the sign of his inn, the Golden Ox.
The Rocket (as his coach was aptly named) rattled in through the archway to the inn's yard and the passengers, who had hitherto found the stranger so taciturn, now noted the silver-capped cane--which had begun to tap the floor at Westminster Bridge--commence a veritable tattoo.
He was a tall man in his forties, so big in the chest and broad in the shoulder that his fellows on the bench seat had felt the strain of his presence, but what his occupation was, or what he planned to do in London, they had not the least idea. One privately imagined him a book-maker, another a gentleman farmer and a third, seeing the excellent quality of his waistcoat, imagined him an upper servant wearing his master's cast-off clothing.
His face did not deny the possibility of any of these occupations; indeed he would have been a singular example of any one of them. His brows pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process. His nose was large, hawkish, and high-bridged. His eyes were dark, inquiring, and yet there was a bruised, even belligerent quality which had kept his fellow passengers at their distance all through that long journey up from Dover.
No sooner had they heard the coachman's Whoa-up than he had the door open and was out into the night without having said a single word.
The first of the passengers to alight after him saw the stranger take the porter, a famously insolent individual, firmly by the shoulder blade. He held him there for a good moment, and it was obvious from the look which appeared on that sandy-haired individual's face, that he held him very hard indeed.
"Now pay attention to me, Sir Reverence."
The porter was roughly escorted to the side of the coach.
"You comprennay-voo?" The stranger pointed with his cane to a large trunk on the roof. "The blue item. If it would not inconvenience your Lordship."
The porter made it clear that it would not inconvenience him in the least. Then some money changed hands and the man with the red waistcoat set off into the night, his cane tapping on the cobblestones, and straight up into the Haymarket, his chin up and the orbs of his eyes everywhere reflecting an unearthly flare and glare.
This light had shone all the way from the Elephant and Castle: gas light, blazing and streaming like great torches; sausages illuminated, fish and ice gleaming, chemist shops aglow like caves with their variegated vases illuminated from within. The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.
The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognized it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: "Gin at Threepence--Generous Wines--Hot Spiced." This one here--it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.
Two children were now tugging around his sleeves but he seemed so little aware of their presence that he walked out into the street without once looking down at them.
All around him was uproar, din, the deafening rush, the smell of horse shit, soot, that old yellow smell of London Town.
"Come on, Guv, come with me."
"Come on, Sir."
A young woman with a feathered hat had placed her hand on his elbow: such a handsome face, such short legs. He tugged himself free, walked on a yard or so, and blew his great hawk's nose like a mighty trumpet. As he carefully refolded his handkerchief--a bright green Kingsman of an earlier time--he inadvertently revealed the stumps of the two middle fingers on his left hand, a sight which had already excited curiosity aboard the Rocket.
His Kingsman safely put away for the moment, he started along the Strand, then seemed to change his mind, for a moment later he was heading up Agar Street, then cutting up to Maiden Lane.
In Floral Street, he paused before the now illuminated window of McClusky's Pudding Shop.