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Wednesday 18 October 2023

‘The Jaggard Case' by J. C. Briggs

Published by The Sapre Books,
28 October 2022. 
ISBN: 978-1-80055789-5 (PB)

The Jaggard Case is the tenth novel in J. C. Briggs’s series involving Charles Dickens and therefore set in Victorian London. Firstly, an admission: I have not read any of its predecessors so came to it without any of the back stories that are inevitable in such a well-advanced series. However, this was not a problem as the tale stands perfectly on its own and the author includes a comprehensive list of characters at the start. She also includes illuminating Historical Notes and A Note to the Reader at the end.

The novel is set in 1851. Superintendent Sam Jones of Bow Street is away from the city pursuing Martin Jaggard who is suspected of murdering his former employer Sir William Pell. Jones’s wife, Elizabeth, asks Dickens for help when her much-loved young servant Posy disappears in the company of another more flighty young woman. Dickens has a particular interest in finding Posy, an orphan, as he rescued her from destitution and found her a position with the Joneses. At the same time, Jones catches Jaggard’s mistress, Cora Davies, and an accomplice who are found in possession of stolen jewels belonging to Sir William. Jones fails to find his main target, though, and returns to London where he believes Jaggard may be hiding.

The links between the two cases soon become apparent to Dickens and Jones. Clerkenwell, a well-known area for criminals and forgers, is connected to both and before long the pair suspect that Jaggard is having them followed. Apart from trying to catch Jaggard, the detectives need to find out whether he was involved in Posy’s abduction, whether she is still alive and whether more crimes are planned. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that more crimes are committed!

On her website Briggs explains how she came to write a series featuring Dickens: I discovered Dickens’s journalism and was intrigued by his articles in the periodical ‘Household Words’ in which Dickens records his outings with the police in Victorian London. Dickens was fascinated by police investigations, and by murder. There are plenty of murderers in his novels, and he always had something to say about contemporary murders. Dickens is credited with the creation of the first literary detective, Inspector Bucket, in ‘Bleak House’. And, perhaps, the first male/female detective duo. Mrs Bucket is instrumental in catching the murderer. Dickens calls her ‘a lady of natural detective genius.’

Apart from the investigation, there are a number of notable aspects of the novel. The unsettling aspects of Victorian London are vividly brought to life, as are the decay of the suburbs and the dangers of the marshes. Much of the novel seems to take place at night, sometimes with bad fogs, and this all adds to the atmosphere. There are plenty of nods to Dickens’s own work: the gangs of often violent urchins (the simian Jacko Cragg is notable) are out of Oliver Twist (‘Dodger, to the life,’ Dickens remarks at one point, even if he is referring to his own errand boy Scrap), and he calls himself Jones’s ‘umble servant’. There are many others. The characters are well-drawn, from the villains to those with good intentions. And I enjoyed many of the names, amongst them an undesirable family called Henchman, Bendigo Buster, Miss Tiddy Doll and ‘Sir’ Lucius (Slucius) Dry (and on a personal level I was delighted to see a nine-year-old character called Billy Whittle – a possible ancestor of mine?).

Although there are no great twists in the plot, the case is solved in a satisfyingly logical manner with quite a bit of violence and disaster along the way. Dickens at one-point poses as a country parson. At another he takes an unintended dip in the docks at the same time as an elephant makes a vital appearance. You will gather from this that The Jaggard Case is a highly idiosyncratic and enjoyable novel, one that I am very happy to recommend.
Reviewer: David Whittle 

Jean Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong, and Lancashire. She now lives in a cottage by a river in Cumbria with a view of the Howgill Fells and a lot of sheep, though it is the streets of Victorian London that are mostly in her mind when she is writing about Charles Dickens as a detective. There are eleven novels in the series so far, published by Sapere Books. The latest, The Jaggard Case, came out in October 2022. Number eleven, The Waxwork Man, comes out on September 15th. Another novel will come out at the end of 2023. This is a new departure, a novel about an empty house called Foulstone in the old county of Westmorland, a house with secrets kept since the First World War.

She was Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association (2018-2022), is still a board member of the CWA, a member of Historical Writers’ Association, the Dickens Fellowship, The Society of Authors, and a trustee of Sedbergh Book Town.

David Whittle is firstly a musician (he is an organist and was Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School for over 30 years) but has always enjoyed crime fiction. This led him to write a biography of the composer Bruce Montgomery who is better known to lovers of crime fiction as Edmund Crispin, about whom he gives talks now and then. He is currently convenor of the East Midlands Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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