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By Nicholas Blake

Males - overall strangers - determine the ideal alibis through arranging to change sufferers. Ned Stowe will kill Stuart Hammer’s filthy rich uncle for which provider Hammer is to put off Stowe’s neurotic spouse, Helena. Too far-fetched? possibly. however the males plot and the plan - with its horrifyingly basic premise - is solidified...

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Dickens’s writing career is, of course, a prime example of the novel’s close association with crime. All of his writing, from the newspaper sketches of the 1830s (later collected as Sketches by Boz) to the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), reveals a fascination with crime, criminals and prisons. The two series of Sketches by Boz, which appeared in 1836, repeatedly focus on criminals and low life, with curiously mixed effects: on the one hand they make a spectacle of criminality for the consumer of the tapestry of urban life, and on the other hand they serve to shock the middle-class readers into seeing aspects of city life which they would normally not encounter, or would pass by with averted gaze.

The controversy about Newgate fiction was both literary and social. It was a debate about the nature and future of the novel as a literary form, and it was 20 The Newgate novel and sensation fiction, 1830–1868 also a response to social upheaval and unrest at home and on the continent of Europe. As R. D. Altick points out, by ‘a sweeping association of robbers and murderers with rioters and strikers, influential critics . . found . . the Newgate novel’s romanticizing of criminals . . ’5 Who were the Newgate novelists and which of their works were Newgate novels?

22 The relatively low-key debate about the Newgate novels’ moral ambivalence and unwholesome fascination with crime and low life that had been conducted in the pages of the middle-class periodical press in the early 1830s, was considerably amplified at the end of the decade by the response to two serialised novels (both illustrated by George Cruikshank), which, for part of their run, appeared side by side in the monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany. The first of these novels was Dickens’s Oliver Twist (February 1837–April 1839), and the other was Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (January 1839–February 1840), one of the most successful of all the Newgate novels.

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A Penknife in My Heart by Nicholas Blake

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