- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chaucer and Shakespeare recognized the wisdom of stealing from the best (Virgil, Dante, Boccaccio and other classics). And two pragmatic contemporary novelists have followed their larcenous example most profitably, mining the untold riches offered by the great Victorian novelists: First and foremost, “the Inimitable” Charles Dickens, and also his illustrious contemporaries Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope and that nonpareil spinner of ghostly yarns Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

In his elaborately plotted Kept (HarperCollins, $29.95, 480 pages), British novelist and biographer D.J. Taylor reshapes insistent echoes of beloved classics into a brain-squeezing tale of windswept passions, dispassionate venality and skillful misdirection. It begins with reports of two seemingly unrelated deaths, three years apart (during the 1860s): The “accidental” one of young Suffolk landowner Henry Ireland, thrown from the horse he was riding, and that of his older neighbor James Dixey, an amateur naturalist, whose gloomy old estate housed numerous specimens of wildlife (one of which creatures had, presumably, fatally attacked him).

These deaths are painstakingly connected to the mysterious doings of two poachers hired in Edinburgh and dispatched to Scotland’s remote Highlands, and to the sad fate of Isabel Brotherton, supposedly stricken “mad” following the death of her new husband (the aforementioned Ireland) and entrusted to the care of (the not yet deceased) Dixey, one of the trustees who administer Isabel’s inheritance.

These plots are then assiduously linked to several others populated by a rich panoply of odd characters. Prominent among them are Ireland’s beleaguered lawyer (and Dixey’s co-trustee) Mr. Crabbe; plucky housemaid Esther Spalding, who toils at Dixey’s estate Easton Hall, where she becomes smitten with an ambitious young footman; the sinister bill collector Mr. Pardew and his jovial hireling Bob Grace; a clergyman named Crawley (score one for Thackeray’s Vanity Fair); and assorted visiting celebrities, including George Eliot and Thackeray himself.

And when Captain McTurk of Scotland Yard enters the narrative, the full dimensions of Mr. Pardew’s machinations (which involve “the conveyance of bullion to the Continent”) are revealed — albeit not before a sidewinding trip to the Canadian Arctic, where a tricky subplot heavily indebted to Jack London plays itself out.

“Kept” gives a master class in narrative manipulation, while keeping us hooked, and guessing. Mr. Taylor presents his story’s numerous mysteries and their resolutions through the viewpoints of characters who are introduced at precisely calculated intervals, for the very purposes of communicating essential information and muddying the waters even further.

Though the orchestration of the ambitious crime that gathers to its bosom most of the novel’s lesser misdeeds is beautifully detailed and handled, there is perhaps a bit of a letdown at a climax that isn’t really as surprising as Taylor probably intended it to be. On the other hand, the manner in which Captain McTurk’s resourceful brain connects Henry Ireland’s death to everything that followed it is a marvel of intricacy and ingenuity. Dickens and his peers would surely have approved.

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The American novelist George Hagen follows his highly praised debut novel “The Laments” with something completely different: Tom Bedlam (Random House, $25.95, 448 pages), a hugely entertaining, panoramic account of a poor young man’s rise to fortune, happiness of a sort, and a tempered comprehension of how to live with what the world both gives us and asks of us.

We first meet the eponymous Tom as a 9-year-old boy laboring alongside his gentle mother, Emily, in a Stygian London porcelain factory. Their hard lives are worsened when Tom’s vagrant father, bombastic itinerant actor Bill Bedlam, “returns,” then absconds with the luckless Emily’s meager life savings.

Over the years, and following Emily’s death, Tom’s loathsome begetter keeps reappearing, as our hero passes through boarding school (financed by his wealthy grandfather), medical school in Scotland, a position at a hospital in New South Wales that leads to battlefield service as a medic during the Boer War, and a new set of challenges, losses and efforts to cope as the carnage of World War I figuratively alters the ground beneath Tom’s feet.

We catch echoes of Fielding’s Tom Jones in the younger Bedlam’s precocious appreciation of nubile femininity, and of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby in scenes occurring at Hammer Hall, where schoolboy Tom encounters a soulmate, and bullying enemies, and (at his reappeared father’s urging) makes a deal with the devil that simultaneously ensures his future and renders him vulnerable to lifelong second-guessing and guilt.

Hagen’s technique is masterly. We experience Tom’s growth and change as he experiences a rapid sequence of bewildering episodes. It all flashes by so quickly, it seems, as he prospers, marries and fathers children — and in so doing, produces hostages to the fortune that continues to enable him and threaten him.

This wonderful novel thus combines the conventions of the Victorian “three-decker” (coincidence, sentimentality, unrelenting action) with the complexity and irony of a modern novel. Tom does not flinch from showing us that the Bill Bedlams of the world survive, that injustice and violence will exact their toll. Yet Tom manages to suggest, convincingly, that the righting of old wrongs and the fulfillment of seemingly vain hopes comprise a rebuttal to the folly and chaos of greed, cruelty and war.

Bruce Allen reviews new and classic fiction for the Boston Globe, Sewanee Review and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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