THE HOUSE OF CARDS by Leon Garfield


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British author Garfield, outshining even Michael Noonan (Magwitch, p. 1208), is quite obviously Head Boy in the neo-Dickens atelier--with his Edwin Drood addendum, and now with this timeless Victorian novel of love and pathos, mystery and bright gaiety, cosy conviviality and cold horror. The 1847 prologue is suitably dreadful: a blasted landscape of the dead in a tiny massacred Polish village--where a ragged tramp, his face ""a curse with a beard,"" sardonically addresses the dead but also croaks out a lullaby to a howling baby, the only living survivor. . . or was there one more, unseen? Jump, then, to the ""rushing multitude"" of London a dozen years later--as shabby, elderly language-teacher Mr. Walker and his twelve-year-old daughter Perdita, pretty and tyrannical as a Tsar-ette, arrive at the Pickled Herring and Delicacies emporium of beaming Mr. Dolly, a Micawber sort famous for his kindness to the needy (both in Billingsgate and his native Polish town). And, at the Dollys' Friday-night feast, the Walkers will be joined by: timid widow Mrs. Fairhazel (Mrs. Dolly is matchmaking); David Kozlowski, a nervous young Pole; and (in a spectacular entrance) exotically handsome Katerina Kropotka--drenched in pervasive scent, dressed in startling red velvet, an odd choice for one who is, she claims, being pursued. The smitten Perdita insists that Katerina stay with her and Pa. (They board with ""a musical pair,"" the Streamers--an amorous violinist and a mournful piano teacher.) Quite soon foggy pasts begin to bubble up to the precarious present, in which a court case (for which Mr. Dolly is a proud juryman), ""Standfast vs. Standfast,"" figures prominently. There'll be strange trysts, revelations, a rattling trunk hidden in the Streamers' attic, a double-identity of rags and riches, disappearances, a grisly murder, and a heart-tearing execution--all delicately and unobtrusively brought together by that little black spider of a lawyer's clerk: modest Mr. Clarky, an unsung sleuth who lets the lordly Yard take the credit. A fine yarn for any era--with warmth, antic hyperbolic humor (an ancient aunt ""looked as if she'd been shot through both cheeks""), and truly Dickensian graveyard ironies.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: St. Martin's