17th March '19
This is the first book in a grisly new series. It tells of the misfortunes of ten-year-old orphan, Cephas Catchpole. The story is set in early 19th century England and is full of historical colour, suspense and dark humour.
Cephas works as a chimney sweep for the thoroughly unpleasant and boil-ridden Artimus Groundling. His is a miserable life: dirty, dangerous work in return for the shabbiest of living conditions and very little food (after all, what good is a plump chimney sweep?). Cephas thinks his life couldn’t get much worse but then, following a fall, he is mistaken for dead and buried alive. After he is rescued by two body snatchers, Horace Dalrymple and Jack Cutpurse, the book (and Cephas’s life) turn even more sinister.
Cephas is unwillingly drawn into the murky criminal underworld of pickpockets, grave robbers and medical malpractice, with a public hanging thrown in for good measure. Dalrymple and Cutpurse are petty criminals by day but by night their illegal activity takes a far nastier turn as they dig up fresh corpses to sell to doctors for medical research. A word of warning: some of the grisly descriptions of hanging and primitive medical experiments might be too much for squeamish readers.
The story is told with brilliantly atmospheric historical details, giving the book a vivid sense of time and place. I also enjoyed the non-linear narrative; discovering Cephas’s story out of sequence added to the suspense. A key part of the historical context is smallpox – the ‘speckled monster’ of the book’s title. Cephas’s father died of it, and the fanatical Doctor Mordecai Brimstone is obsessed with the disease. He is hellbent on finding a cure, no matter the cost to his wife and daughter.
This is a really accessible early chapter book. It’s exciting, fast paced, fairly short, and part of a series – all very appealing to a newly independent reader.
The book ends with lots of unanswered questions: the mystery surrounding Cephas’s parents, the hangman’s secret, and the significance of the Indian woman tattoo on Cephas’s wrist. Everything is set up perfectly for the sequel.