J. Robert Whittle,
Lizzie: Lethal Innocence
(Whitlands, 1999)

Nine-year-old Lizzie Short is bright, precocious and determined to have a better life than that provided by her drunkard mother, so one day she strikes out on her own. Finding a crippled old sailor in the street, she takes him home and sets herself up as his nurse, cook and housemaid, thus providing herself with a place to live. A job delivering bread ensures both income and food, and Lizzie is off, transforming her life.

Joe Todd, the old sailor and Lizzie's adopted father (though she adopted him, rather than the more traditional method), is only the first of Lizzie's many conquests. Once set up with a home and a way of obtaining food, she begins building a network of informants and allies, mostly among the adult male denizens of the area. Before long, she has half the people of the London docks neatly wrapped around her little finger -- and holds the deeds to half the properties, too! Lizzie's star is on the rise.

Lethal Innocence, despite its well-researched historical setting, is utter fantasy. The story takes place around the docks in 1804 London. Very few men of the time would have listened to the suggestions or followed the orders of a grown woman, let alone a girl-child of 12, no matter how precocious!

Not only is the set-up improbable, but so is the action. Stories are based in imperfections and conflict. While Lethal Innocence has imperfection, there is almost nothing in the way of conflict. Nothing ever goes wrong for Lizzie. None of the grown men with whom she deals refuse to accept her orders. None of her schemes fail. No one ever opposes her. This is not the way the world, even in fantasy, works.

The author's use of dialects also provides another difficulty in the book. Anyone who has read Robert Burns knows how difficult it can be to make sense of written dialects. Although there's nothing so extreme here, the characters all speak in differing dialects. The worst offender is the Chinese character whose entire dialogue is written in an "l-for-q" and "w-for-l" dialect, which slows the pace of the story since the reader often has to stop to puzzle out what was just said.

The book's narrration, however, uses simple, clear language. Although aimed at adults, despite the age of the main character, the book is perfectly accessible to children, though I'm not sure parents would appreciate their children using Lizzie as a role model.

Part of the cover blurb describes Lethal Innocence as, in part, "wholesome." Probably what the person meant was that there is no sex and very little violence. The book is not "wholesome." Lizzie is the Artful Dodger and Fagin both packed into one little girl. In order to make her way in the world, she cheerfully employs theft, extortion and piracy, though she stops short of murder. Even though Lizzie's actions are presented as merely giving the wicked what's coming to them to make them more palatable, these don't seem like wholesome family values to me. On the other hand, Lizzie is fiercely loyal to her people and rewards them well for their service.

So, on the whole, Lethal Innocence is a mixed book. While the historical setting is well-researched and vividly presented, the action is unrealistic and improbable. The dialogue is unclear and annoying in spots. But the story is fast-paced and younger readers especially should enjoy Lizzie's hijinks.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001

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