In this dark but rousing 19th-century picaresque about a one-handed orphan who falls in with rogues, Tinti (stories: Animal Crackers, 2004) pays homage to 19th-century biggies, particularly Twain, Dickens and Stevenson, creating a fictional world unique yet hauntingly familiar.
Abandoned as a baby wearing a jacket with the initials REN sewn in the collar, 12-year-old Ren lives in St. Anthony’s monastery until a man arrives and claims him as his long-lost brother. Benjamin Nab is a small-time swindler/crook of all mistrades who sees Ren’s handicap as a useful conning tool. That Ren is also a natural thief, despite his devout Catholicism (he steals The Lives of the Saints), is a bonus. Soon Benjamin and his partner Tom, a former schoolteacher and erudite drunk, take Ren to grim North Umbrage, a former mining town where the only employer is a mousetrap factory run by the tyrant McGinty. Tom, Benjamin and Ren board with a stern but soft-hearted widow whose well-read dwarf brother lives on her roof, dropping through the chimney daily for his supper. The men strike a lucrative deal with a local surgeon to steal bodies, and for a while life is good. While charming, untrustworthy Benjamin (picture Johnny Depp) spins one tale after another to get his crew out of scrapes, Ren picks up pieces of Benjamin and Tom’s sad true stories. Tom, who turned to crime out of guilt over his best friend’s suicide, adopts Ren’s twin best friends from the monastery and brings them into the band, along with Dolly, the gentle giant and hired killer who the grave robbers discover has been buried prematurely. The tale darkens after McGinty’s vicious henchmen catch the thieves in the cemetery. McGinty frees the other but keeps Ren, claiming he is actually the rich man’s bastard nephew whom McGinty blames for his sister’s death. As more facts come out, Ren learns his true identity.
Marvelously satisfying hokum, rich with sensory details, surprising twists and living, breathing characters to root for.