Survival of the fittest in dark and gloomy Victorian London
By Mark Barratt
Published by Red Fox / Random House Children's Books
ISBN 978 1 862 30218 1
Victorian London, with its swirling fogs and dark, dangerous streets, is a favourite setting for youth fiction mystery novels. On the surface, Mark Barratt's Joe Rat is a well-planned, thrilling adventure story, but is it also a dark tale of child exploitation in the underbelly of a complex, shadowy city at the time of great social change.
Joe has no home or parents and he has to survive in the city as best he can. He devotes his days to 'toshing' - going into the filthy sewers to search for anything of value that he can sell to buy lodging and food.
But Joe lives in fear of a gang of older lads led by the odious Billy, who steals whatever he can from Joe.
Joe also owes money to Mother, a hideous, obese villainess who runs a protection racket.
Joe doesn't have many friends. But he does have a secret.
Joe has managed to hide some valuables in the grounds of a large mansion supposedly inhabited by a madman. Weird noises are heard coming from the dark house and no one will go near the place. Joe sees it as his safe haven until he has enough money to break away from life as a tosher.
One day, Joe meets Bess, a young girl who is escaping from her mother who has brought her to the city to be sold. The two of them hide in the gardens of the old mansion. But someone is waiting for them in the house. Life is about to get extremely dangerous for Joe and his new-found friend.
Mark Barratt is a faultless storyteller with a background in drama and he certainly knows how to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Joe Rat is a well-written and well-plotted story, with a believable setting and a lively mix of good and evil characters. Barratt's arch-villainess Mother is a creation straight out of a nightmare - not the sort of person anyone would want to meet in a dark alley.
Criminal goings-on in the murky shadows of Victorian London have been the background of novels from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist onwards, but there is nothing old-hat about Joe Rat. A bit of mock-Dickens here, a gripping cinematic story and some excellent set-pieces and fizzing action there, and you have a very enjoyable novel that rattles along towards a satisfying climax.
Joe Rat is an engaging creation - this adventure tale is a lot more than the sum of its parts. Barratt is in control of his story and its background from start to finish, and the result is an engrossing and rollicking read.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com