Review: MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard

Over the holiday, I reread a book I’d loved the first time I encountered it: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Originally published in 2003, the book is a literary thriller. If you enjoy a good mystery wrapped in history, poignance, and a great tip of the hat to a well-known piece of literature, Mr. Timothy won’t disappoint.

Bayard breaks your heart with his portrayal of Timothy Cratchit — yes, that Cratchit, Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Now a young man, Timothy is adrift in life, supported by monthly payments from his “Uncle N,” Ebenezer Scrooge, whose home is now perpetually decorated for Christmas and whose generosity is so well-known that a queue of donation-seeking do-gooders fills his parlor waiting for audiences.

But Scrooge’s munificence colors Timothy’s life in a softly malignant way. Instead of finding his way to great things or even a modest occupation, Timothy suffers from the ennui of the existentially disappointed.

About a third of the way into the novel, Bayard sums up Timothy’s problem with a poignant “letter” from the protagonist to his now-dead father, Bob Cratchit. Timothy writes:

Are you ready for a story, Father?

A young boy — roses blooming in the hollows of his cheeks — is deprived by cruel Fate of the use of one limb. He is clasped in the bosom of a warm, distracted family, who dote upon him but fail to understand his intrinsic worth. For this boy, the reader soon learns, is nothing less than a changeling, a prince of nature, whose birthright was stolen from him in infancy (even as his leg was robbed of its motive force). The infamy might have stood uncorrected were it not for the intervention of a kindly family friend who detects something unusual in the boy, something no one else can see, the boy least of all…And so this kindly old gentleman resolves to restore the changeling to his proper place in the cosmic hierarchy — to raise him up, as it were, to the life for which he was originally destined…

…he sits, still dreaming, still waiting for The Event, which is his private term for the public realization of his destiny. He envisions it as a carriage, a grey brougham pausing at the curb in front of his house, openings its door.

The carriage never comes.

How can you read that and not throb with the heartache of Timothy as a boy, to whom “much was given” and thus “much expected.” He ends up disappointing himself, though, as he waits for that “carriage,” never settling on anything of value to do other than tutoring the madam of a whorehouse, teaching her to read.

164792500But it is near this den of prostitution that he encounters a mystery–the corpse of a young girl whose body has been branded with a stylized “G.” Soon after, he encounters another young girl, aged ten, on the run. And the mystery truly begins — who is she running from, what does the “G” signify, and who in the halls of Scotland Yard and the peerage is involved in a dark and ugly crime?

Timothy solves the puzzle, eventually, but not before experiencing thrilling adventures which involve good policemen and bad, London carriage drivers, a likable (and ill-fated) river dredger, prostitutes, other members of the Cratchit family, a young man on the con, “Uncle N,” and the strong, resolute little girl, Philomela, who started his detective journey. The story winds through life in Victorian London like the snow swirling on Christmas Day, a fitting ending point for this complicated tale that combines pathos with page-turning mystery.

The pathos comes mostly in the form of Timothy’s reflections on his late father. He sees him everywhere, and if you have lost a family member, you will know precisely what he is going through as he sees the body shape, the face, the physical attitude of his father in men he chances upon. But it is in his “letters” to his dad that his grief pours out, his grief at having discovered, too late, just how much he loved the tender man who’d carried him on his shoulders everywhere to spare him walking with a crutch.

I reread Mr. Timothy on my Kindle. I’ll now look for a print copy. This is a book to own as an object as well as a story.

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