Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones has been on my radar as a book I might enjoy for some time now. This was confirmed when one of my Year 5 readers chose it to share with me a week or two ago. I bought my own copy and finished it last night. I would have finished it much sooner had life not had the unfortunate habit of getting in the way of my reading sometimes.
This is a fantastic gothic adventure story set in an afterlife that is like your worst nightmare of bureaucracy and Victorian London in all its grimy splendour. On the side of the ghosts we have Lapsewood, pen pusher extraordinaire, whose job is to document all the dying and make sure their paperwork is in order. On the side of the living we have young Samuel Toop, son of a funeral director and gifted with the ability to see and talk to the dead.
Their paths cross when a mysterious ‘black rot’ starts sweeping across London premises where ghosts used to be. The ghosts disappear, the rot sets in, and soon an unnamed evil stalks the streets. Lapsewood and Sam come at the problem from different perspectives, but soon their paths cross and the plot thickens.
This is wonderfully written, with twists in almost every chapter. You really do not know what is going on until almost the very end of the book, and yet when the conclusion is revealed you don’t feel as if it is rushed or tacked on, rather all the disparate elements of the story slot neatly into place and you find yourself going ‘ah’ and nodding rather a lot.
For me there are two things that really bring this story to life. Firstly we have the author’s brilliant imagining of London and the peculiarities of that particular time in history; a morbid obsession with death and spiralling death rates meant that London is a brilliant bedrock for any gothic story. Secondly, the author has a real knack for creating brilliant characters. The book is full of stand out characters, from Tanner, the urchin ghost to the crazed exorcist the Reverend Fallowfield. The book teems with people who remain memorable, even if they only have the briefest of appearances.
I loved this book. It is one I would recommend for older readers however, as there is quite a lot of violence, some of it pretty detailed and rather grim. There is also a lot of speculation about what happens to people in the afterlife which can raise questions you might not want to answer with younger readers. I’d recommend it for boys and girls aged 8-14. Despite the bleakness there’s a deftness and humour to the writing which leavens things. A beautifully written book.