Skip to main content




“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Those well-known lines are from the opening of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, one of my all-time favorite novels, which I read every night on December 24th before going to bed. As an actor, I have played Ebenezer Scrooge on stage over 10 times. So yes, I could not wait to dive into MARLEY, which takes us from Jacob Marley's youth right up to that fateful Christmas Eve night, when his soul leaves this mortal coil behind, perhaps, for a region directly south of heaven.

Marley and Scrooge were friends and eventually successful business partners after years of working as clerks for various firms in the London business district. Although the prelude of the text is set in the year 1807, we quickly fall back 20 years to 1787 when they are first acquainted as students of Professor Drabb's Academy for Boys. We learn that any educating is done at a self-driven pace, and Professor Drabb barely has any role in the upbringing of these boys. Marley immediately takes to Scrooge, who is sent to the academy by a father who still blames him for the death of his mother in childbirth. Meanwhile, Scrooge's far younger and extremely loyal sister, Fan, remains with her father and constantly begs him to bring her brother home.

"[T]his wonderful novel should give readers who love the Dickens classic more than a few chills as this prequel to that famous ghost story is written with an icy and deft hand."

Jon Clinch's depiction of young Marley shows us a manipulative soul who has more in common with, say, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley than a bland and soulless Dickens clerical creation. As he ages and gets more experienced, Marley becomes as evil and conniving as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Moriarty, and it is with awe that we watch him at work. Once Scrooge and Marley begin their careers with their company of the same name, it is easy to see how the workings of the business is divided. Marley is the more personable and worldly of the two, so he is the one who goes out and establishes the relationships that will grow their shipping and warehousing business. Scrooge is the wizard of the accounts and keeps all the books. He is so immersed in his own work that he never looks into or questions any of the connections that Marley has secured.

After already successfully reimagining the life of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in his novel, FINN, Clinch employs the same strategy in MARLEY. This involves several keenly referenced clues --- or, to use the modern term, “Easter Eggs” --- that only well-read and knowledgeable readers will actually pick up on. One of the business contacts is named Nemo, a reference to Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, which is ironic since the false business contact works in shipping. Marley also uses his own aliases. In fact, one fake signature is for the name Trotter. Fans of Agatha Christie will immediately recognize that Inspector Trotter is the villain and faux detective from her novel and play, THE MOUSETRAP. This turns out to be doubly ironic as the Jacob Marley in this book also regularly visits a house of ill repute under the assumed guise of an Inspector Bucket, a nod to Trotter. It's great to see how much fun Clinch is having while putting together this fine novel.

MARLEY also goes to some dark and unexpected places, the most significant being that Scrooge's girlfriend, Belle Fairchild, is to be his wife. However, when Scrooge sits down with her father to ask for her hand in marriage, he is received with a surprising turndown. Mr. Fairchild is very much aware of the dark business secret that Marley has been hiding from everyone. It seems the shipments that Scrooge & Marley are involved with back and forth from Africa contain not just goods, such as rum, but also human cargo --- slaves. Until they cease and desist with this unsavory business practice, Belle will never be married to Scrooge.

Scrooge confronts Marley, who initially deflects the accusation and then humbly admits to having some knowledge and begrudgingly agrees to stop the slave trafficking --- even though it yields the highest income for their firm. Yes, this Jacob Marley is more like a mob boss than an unfriendly London businessman. Readers will see that the impressionable Scrooge has turned into what we all know he will eventually become due to his adulation and close relationship with Marley.

As I was reading, it suddenly dawned on me that the linked chains depicted on the book’s cover --- which are synonymous with our shared image of the spectral version of Marley who visits Scrooge on a Christmas Eve night seven years past his death --- may actually symbolize the chains that bound the slaves on Marley's ships. This dual meaning gave me a chill, and this wonderful novel should give readers who love the Dickens classic more than a few chills as this prequel to that famous ghost story is written with an icy and deft hand.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 18, 2019

by Jon Clinch

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1982129719
  • ISBN-13: 9781982129712