Tiny Tim has grown up in this uneven effort: an intriguing reexamination of Dickens’s beloved waif, saddled with a not altogether successful thriller, à la The Alienist.
It’s nearing Christmas in 1860s London and Tim Cratchit, now in his 20s, is reconsidering his life, irrevocably altered by that fateful, famous Christmas Day so many years ago. After his conversion to goodness, Ebenezer Scrooge took on the Cratchit family as his personal penance, particularly the angelic Tiny Tim. Tim was sent to doctors to fix his legs, tutored to fix his mind, and, by 20, he’s a right little gentleman, though with few prospects and even less money (in an amusing turn, Scrooge, who’s given most of his money away in philanthropy, now devotes his time to his collection of fungi). Strapped for cash, Tim takes a job as tutor in exchange for room and board, but his pupil is a middle-aged madame and his new home a brothel. Bayard’s success is in questioning the original narrative of The Christmas Carol: it seems Tiny Tim never uttered all the selfless prattle attributed to him, it was father Bob Cratchit who fed the lines, trying to make something extraordinary out of his crippled boy. Into this father-son drama (though Bob is dead, Tim sees his ghost everywhere) comes the plot of a child slave-ring. Tim stumbles on a secret society with royal connections, though this society imports ten-year-old girls, brands them with Lord Griffyn’s sign, and then offers them to upper-class pedophiles. With the help of young Colin, a street urchin who would have done Fagin proud, Tim tries to rescue Philomela, an Italian girl who has already once escaped the clutches of Lord Griffyn. Like Dickens, Bayard exposes the poverty and casual exploitation of children in that most self-serious of eras, and if he’s a bit more explicit, well, this is the 21st century after all. Bayard is less successful in turning this clever literary novel into a bait-and-chase thriller—the climactic rescue comprises a full third of the narrative—and it is mighty hard work keeping the chase lively for so long.
Still, a clever premise and smartly detailed prose manage to offset the disappointment of this tale’s forced excitement.