At this festive time of year, it is of course a good idea to revisit the classics, and of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of those classics, which I personally reread every year (for my money, none of the movie adaptations manages to capture the depths of the original). This year, in addition to reading A Christmas Carol, I also read a new book, Marley, by John Clinch, which (as you might guess from the title) is a prequel to A Christmas Carol, and gives us, among other things, a look at what Jacob Marley was like when he was alive, and what his relationship with Ebeneezer Scrooge was like when they worked together at Scrooge & Marley’s.
This seems to be my year to read different versions of famous books, whether that’s because there are more of them around or whether that’s just saying something about my taste. One of the things I look for is a sense of the author’s knowledge of (and love for) the source material. The writer of the new book is constrained to greater or lesser extent by the original, and that’s especially so in the case of Marley. We know how the story ends, after all: Marley is dead before the book begins, and Scrooge is set in his ways as a miserly curmudgeon, and the ghost of Jacob Marley comes on Christmas Eve to save Scrooge from Marley’s fate. We also know something of Scrooge’s past from his encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and any prequel to A Christmas Carol has to not only create a Jacob Marley who could believably be both the partner of the bad Scrooge and someone who could come back from the grave to save Scrooge, but also to create a past Scrooge who lives up to what we see with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
It’s a tall order, but Clinch manages it brilliantly. Jacob Marley meets Scrooge when the pair of them are in that terrible boarding school, and immediately demonstrates what he’s going to be for most of the rest of his life by taking advantage of Scrooge’s ignorance. Marley is a charming, reprehensible person: a cheat, a fraud, a forger, a libertine and a man who will step on anyone to get his way. As you watch him create not just shell organizations but fraudulent documents purportedly signed by people in these fraudulent organizations, and you watch his incredible imagination at work, you can’t help but almost admire him, all the while being aware that his ends are dreadful and he has no morals to speak of. You dislike him because you know what he’s really doing, but at the same time he exerts an almost Dexter-like antihero fascination. At one point a young Scrooge describes Marley as “protean”, and that is really an excellent encapsulation of Marley.
One of the more interesting things in this book, a major plot point in fact, is that Scrooge and Marley’s fortune is made through the slave trade. You will notice in the original that at no point does anyone talk about where their money came from, so it makes perfect sense that it would be vaguely illegal (or absolutely illegal). Scrooge, who comes across in most of this book as a calculating machine, someone who cares only about the figures on the page and not about what they represent in the real world, becomes aware that the slave trade is part of his bread and butter only when Belle’s father refuses to allow her to marry him because of where his money comes from. Scrooge sees the light and attempts to divest the company’s funds from slave ships, but Marley isn’t willing to give up such a lucrative trade, even when slavery is made illegal in Great Britain. The way Scrooge and Marley plot against each other in secret over this makes for tension in the book, and the involvement of other parties, including Scrooge’s brother in law (his sister’s husband), creates twists and turns worthy of Dickens himself (and I can’t give higher praise than that).
I always say that you don’t need to read the original to appreciate one of these books, and that’s true for Marley, but I would be remiss not to mention the cleverness with which Clinch seeds the narrative with other Dickens characters. Many of the names of the fake lawyers, businessmen and other characters Marley creates are in fact names familiar to any Dickens fan, but occasionally one of Dickens’ characters makes a brief appearance, not even big enough to be a cameo, and that’s just delightful (I’m thinking particularly here of a mention of a young lawyer by the name of Tulkinghorn, who is a major character in Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel). Even better is Marley’s alias, used when he’s doing something especially sleazy (shaking down whorehouses, for instance, or hiring murderers), of Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan Police. The name becomes a joke of sorts, insulating Marley from the consequences of his actions, but there is in fact an Inspector Bucket (a very good detective, too) in Bleak House. If you’re a fan of Dickens, you will especially appreciate the author’s love for the master.
Marley is a satisfying read, a book that stands on its own but also illuminates its predecessor. The characters and plot are worthy of Dickens while being modern at the same time. In this festive season, augment your enjoyment of A Christmas Carol by reading Marley as well.