In a Dickensian mystery in the tradition of his marvelous Smith, Garfield weaves a Victorian thriller that is also a parable for today. After sweep's boy Barnacle (he has ""amazing powers of holding on"") overhears a conspiracy that, unschooled as he is, makes no sense to him, he falls dramatically into the conspirators' midst and in his fright escapes with two crucial clues: a monogrammed spoon and a locket containing a Madonna he later ingenuously describes as his mother. Taken in by bargeman Tom Gosling, he is tracked by the fearsome Inspector Creaker (whose voice has a ""whistling edge [that cuts] through the quiet without even making it bleed""). Alternating brief chapters about Creaker--whose highly-placed master assumes that Barnacle holds damaging information and demands that Creaker ""put an end to Barnacle's birthdays""--and about Tom and Barnacle, whose friendship thrives even as they become aware of the danger, Garfield's intricate plot keeps suspense taut till the last chapter. It is the ""rigid, unbending"" Creaker who, believing he is defending the state against terrorists, proves to have a conscience that precipitates the satisfying denouement. And it's Barnacle who wakens the conscience, in a courageous gamble of the life and hope to which he now clings, in a move worthy of the Madonna's son. First written as a TV script, Garfield's masterly prose evokes his characters and their dockside, underworld London setting better than any screen could. Sure to delight Garfield fans, or any reader of mysteries and spy stories set in the past.