A Different Kind of Twist
It must be fate: The lovely and talented Cynthia Kuhn invites me to post here in June when my new book Oliver Twisted comes out, and then I discover that the theme for the month is “Twist.” And since I listen when the universe talks, I’d like to give Dickens his due, and write about Oliver Twist.
That was my opening paragraph for this blog post. Then I sat in front of my computer and thought, “Are you crazy? There is no possible way you can write about Oliver Twist. There are entire books written about the novel. There are even entire books written about the musical (I own one). The story has been popular for 178 years and with good reason. Why in the world do you think you can write about it?”
So I won’t write about Oliver Twist. I’ll just tell you why I love it.
I love the humor. Most of the humor is borne out of character, so it’s difficult to show it off in an excerpt, but this one about Oliver’s name makes me smile:
Mrs. Mann raised her hands in astonishment; but added, after a moment’s reflection, ‘How comes he to have any name at all, then?’
The beadle drew himself up with great pride, and said, ‘I inwented it.’
‘You, Mr. Bumble!’
‘I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The last was a S,—Swubble, I named him. This was a T,—Twist, I named him. The next one comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.’
I love the darkness. Ladies used to faint when Dickens read from Oliver Twist, and with good reason. He depicted violence in all its bloody gore, and his characters could be as menacing as any modern villain. I think Dickens’s original dialogue still works to great effect, which is why I used it in a few places in Oliver Twisted, as in this scene where Val, a Russian actor who plays Bill Sikes, turns on Ivy when she approaches him offstage:
“Stand off from me, or I’ll split your head against the wall.”
Whoa. I stepped back.
“That’s right,” Val continued in his Bill Sikes voice, “you be quiet now, or I’ll quiet you for a good long time to come.” He stared at me with the flat eyes of a killer, then turned back to the girls, all charm. “Now if you’ll excuse me, ladies.” He doffed his hat and took my arm roughly. “Pretty good, you think?” Val whispered to me in his own voice as he pulled me away from the group. “I do that for the play tonight. Now they come. Nice foreskin, yes?”
“Foreski—I think you mean foreshadowing. Oh. You knew that, didn’t you?”
Val grinned at me. No sign of Bill Sikes now.
Heck, I just love the writing. Though I’m not always fond of wordy writing (no Faulkner for me), Dickens makes it work for me. It might be his fine balance of description and dialogue, or it might be simply that I love Dickens’s way with words, like this description of Oliver’s birth:
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress,
rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
“Rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer”—don’t you love it?
I love the musical Oliver! No, it’s not the book (SO much sunnier), but what great songs—and the dance numbers are to die for. My fav? “Consider Yourself.” If you haven’t seen it in awhile, you owe it to yourself to watch this great version from the 1968 film. It features Jack London as The Artful Dodger, Mark Lester as Oliver, and–butchers dancing with meat? Now there’s a twist for you.
Cindy Brown writes madcap mysteries set in the off, off, off Broadway world of theater. Macdeath (nominated for an Agatha Award for best debut novel!) The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted (June 2016) star Ivy Meadows, actress and part-time PI. Cindy lives in Portland, Oregon, but made her home in Phoenix, Arizona, for more than 25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities.