The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott (2017). A review by John Cook

The Fatal Tree

 

I have always very much enjoyed Arnott’s past output focussing, as it does, on the criminal underworld of the 1960s and 70s (think Kray brothers). Titles include ‘The Long Firm’ (TV drama also) ‘He Kills Coppers’, ‘truecrime’ and ‘Johnny Come Home’. He is an out bisexual and his oeuvre includes ‘The Devil’s Paintbrush’ which includes an encounter between Gen Sir Hector MacDonald and the wicked Aleister Crowley. His writing is tight, the characterisations exact and his story telling engrossing while at times, very very black. The ‘crim’ titles are, however, a well researched exploration of those times and the world that surrounded all levels of criminality, both quality and underclass. He does not shy from homosexual issues.

In this most recent book, he has taken a huge leap back into the past to the 18thC but centres on the same criminal underworld. In doing so, he has endeared himself to me, but in two aspects may have offered some readers too much of a challenge. First, many readers do not come with much knowledge of criminal life in the 1700’s and certainly not at the level of organisation that created ‘as you will’ links of convenience between formal criminal justice, the heaving criminal underworld and the grey area of the ‘thief-taker’. Add into this the focus of public hanging of felons and the associated industry of pamphleteering and you have a fine old potential stew – not to mention the ‘molly houses’ frequented by gay men. Second, what complicates matters is that Arnott uses throughout the criminal argot of the time which found its way into ‘flash’ talk which via transportation and direct cockney influences informed much of Australian slang.

I confess to a long interest in Australian slang and its origins (I chased up a slang dictionary in my High School days – it might have been Sidney Baker) and I have at least 4 convict ancestors sentenced in the 1700s. The most relevant would be Ann Carey who was tried at Norwich on August 3, 1789, convicted and sentenced to transportation for seven years for stealing a variety of manchester goods. I found the slang a little off-putting initially but only occasionally had recourse to the glossary as I fell into its rhythm. Likewise I found myself identifying my GGGG Grandmother with the central female character of the book.

The fatal tree is, of course, the gallows at Tyburn from which three men, women or youths could be dispatched at a time. Anyone conversant with those times will be aware the activities and processes that surrounded executions with all the public activities included. One of these was the publication of small printed works that might touch on the life of the condemned, their crimes and any confession and remorse offered. The sale of these might be crucial to ensure a decent burial and avoiding being ‘anatomised’ by ‘doctors’. I couldn’t help thinking of how elements of this persist in modern print and video ‘journalism’.

One of the main characters who literally speaks to the reader is Billy Archer who hopes to become a true literary figure. He mixes John Gay who will write ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ which will morph into the Threepenny Opera and is the foundation of much 20thC writing and film which features underworld life.

Another key character is Edgeworth Bess or Elizabethan Lyon who is the classic young country girl who falls at the hands (?) of the heedless young country gent and who has to flee to the city (London, known at Romeville) where she has to find her way and love wherever she can. Her great love, stammering Jack Sheppard, is temporarily successful as a thief and serial escapee but must eventually meet his fate (which he hopes to avoid) while Bess follows in the footsteps of my ancestor.

There is no strong centrally developed narrative here though there is enough episodic action to keep interest up as to the fate of various characters. This is made a little more difficult by the regular shifts in narration from Bess to Billy. There is a homosexual strand involving the usual blighted search after a loving relationship which comes to its own bitter end.

If you have read any of Henry Fielding especially ‘Moll Flanders’ or ‘The Life and Death of Jonathon Wild, the Great’ you will be at least part prepared for this read.

I enjoyed this book very much as a continuation of Arnott’s themed output garnished with the colour (and smell) of a different (yet very similar) time.

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