JC Briggs brings the reader into the world of mid-nineteenth-century London very effectively indeed. The Jaggard Case is the tenth in Briggs’ series of crime novels featuring the writer as detective, which began with The Murder of Patience Brooke in 2014. The mystery begins with a disappearance: Dickens’ friend, and co-investigator, Superintendent Sam Jones of Scotland Yard, has taken on, on Dickens’s recommendation, an orphan girl, Posy, as a housemaid. One weekend Posy goes with a maid from a nearby household, Phoebe, to visit the latter’s family, who live in a cottage on the edge of the city. On Monday the two girls do not reappear. Superintendent Jones, and Dickens, fear the worst, that the girls have been abducted to be forced into sex slavery in a brothel, and set out to find them. Their investigations lead them to suspect a link with forger, suspected murderer and master-criminal Martin Jaggard. However, every time they think they are close to him another body or two turns up, and Jaggard moves on. Eventually however, there must come a confrontation…
I’ve not read any of the other books in the series, so I came to this one with an open mind, apart from a raised eyebrow over Charles Dickens as a detective. But I soon got used to him. It’s clear from the book, as well as what I found on the author’s website, that Ms Briggs has done a great deal of research, not only on Dickens himself, but on the world he inhabited, both the circles in which he moved, and the less salubrious aspects of the metropolis, in which he was deeply interested. The transitions between these worlds work because the author is able to conjure up powerful images of the reality of life in the decaying slums, and characters that work in those settings. That includes Dickens too, who functions more as a co-ordinator and team leader than as the eccentric genius detective the author could have been tempted to portray; and this makes him believable. He doesn’t seek to hog the limelight or constantly tell people about himself or his latest book, and thus doesn’t become a distraction from the onward progress of the plot.
Would it have been as good without Charles Dickens as a central character, with some other detective conjured up by the writer? I have to say that the restrained use which Jean Briggs makes of him enables him, for me at least, to function, not as a gimmick, but as an enhancement to the book.
The Jaggard Case is a good read, with a A well-thought-out plot, strong characters, and settings that lean out of the text to enfold you. And J. C. Briggs can write, too; her use of language enables the book to flow so well that you can’t help just starting to read the next chapter.