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Tiny Tim to the rescue

A thriller of Christmas past

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Poor Ebenezer Scrooge. Somebody's always trying to pick his pocket. If it's not those pesky charities, it's Bob Cratchit asking to get off on Dec. 25 - "the whole day!" Pirated copies of "The Christmas Carol" appeared in England before it was two weeks old. American publishers stole it as soon as the steamer arrived in New York.

Written quickly in financial and artistic desperation just before Christmas in 1843, Dickens's classic sold phenomenally, but consumed its own profits in printing and legal costs. Everybody, it seems, was able to benefit from Scrooge except his creator. Bah, humbug!

The story wasn't even a year old before some satirical wag brought out a sequel. And the sequels have been haunting Scrooge ever since. This year's appearance, fortunately, is far more than "an undigested bit of beef," as the unreformed miser would complain. It's a fantastic Victorian thriller starring Tiny Tim, who's "not so tiny any more." He's not so crippled any more either, or so treacly.

In fact, the narrator of Louis Bayard's engaging novel is now 23 years old and supporting himself by teaching a London madam how to read. That's hardly the most reputable position, of course, but Bayard reminds us that mid-19th century London was an unseemly place, its streets clogged with desperately poor people, thugs, and prostitutes.

The miraculous intervention of Mr. Scrooge after "the change" helped Tim escape an early death, but his spirit remains hobbled. We learn that long dependence on Uncle 'Neezer's generosity saved the family from poverty, but couldn't protect them from other tragedies or more subtle humiliations. Most of the Cratchit children are now dead - or vanished, disgusted with their dependence or resentful that Scrooge's money couldn't somehow do more to transform them.

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