Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

Some books deserve more than just further discussion and I would suggest that there is enough backstory and intertextuality in Ackroyd's novel about a series of gruesome murders in the East End to warrant another book entirely. (In the meantime this essay gives you a reasonable idea of how much he manages to cram into under 300 pages...)

In some respects the murders, perpetrated by the eponymous 'golem', are peripheral to a story about nineteenth century London which involves Karl Marx, George Gissing, music hall legend Dan Leno and a pastiche of Somerset Maugham's first novel.

Leno is mentor to Elizabeth Cree, who at the book's start is to be hanged for the murder of her husband. But is she also connected to the Limehouse murders? Ackroyd lets the readers draw their own conclusion, shrouding the golem's identity in the murk of history. Even Marx and Leno are briefly suspects, although instantly discounted as having anything to do with the crimes.

Leno and his art are examined at length and Ackroyd goes to great trouble to recreate the lost world of the music hall. His hero is an ultimately a tragic figure whose boozing got the better of him in the end:

“Hall people have their jealousies and their rivalries, but it’s all very mock-heroic. In any case, most of them drink too much to remember if they bear any grudges.” He may have been referring here to his own reputation as something of an ‘old sock’ or ‘blotting paper’; when Leno drank, he drank wildly and incessantly until he woke the following morning without a care in the world. He knew that, in his drunkenness, he would enact many of his familiar stage characters – but he took them to such fantastic and elaborate lengths that even his closest friends could not keep up with him. When he woke up, in a strange chair or upon an unfamiliar floor, he felt as much at peace as if he had performed an exorcism.”

Not exorcised enough, sadly. By the turn of the century his alcoholism and increasingly erratic behaviour had finished his career and he died in 1904, aged just 43.

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