When Leon Garfield was first writing this book he called it The Dead Little Gentleman, which, as Margery Fisher says, 'does not seem to sum up perfectly its peculiar compound of mystery, violence and Dickensian humour'. She also says, 'It is a book to leave firmly out of categories and accept thankfully for what it is - a masterpiece.'
Set in the eighteenth century, it is the story of fourteen-year-old George Treet, eldest son of a family of strolling players. They seem a family with a golden future; actors of genius whose present happiness is only marred by the twice-yearly visits of the stranger in black with his cold, uncanny stare, and the feeling he conveys of some devilish and unwholesome bargain eating away at his soul.
And then suddenly Mr Treet reveals to George, 'You are not my son. You are the child of a great nobleman, rich and mighty,' and George goes to his new home, a vast, rich and dark mansion inhabited by unfriendly servants and a cold ironical mother, a dying father, a monstrous uncle, and death, it seems, lurking in wait for him outside in the fog.
This is not just a rich mixture of adventure and mystery. It is a fascinating study of George's loyalties, divided between pride in his profession as an actor and pride in the noble birth he is told is his.
This book won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction in 1967. Like Leon Garfield's third Puffin book, Smith, it has been serialized on television.
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