Before reading Marley, I dug out my Bantam Classic paperback of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and reread it. As if I needed such an excuse: It’s one of my favorite books, and Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of greed and selfishness never gets old.
I was equally excited to read Marley, which promised to deliver the untold origin story of Scrooge and his partner Jacob Marley’s sordid business. But whereas Dickens’ novel is ultimately uplifting—our stingy protagonist wholly embraces the lessons learned from ghostly visitations and immediately sets about amending his ways—Marley is anything but. It’s darkly haunting in its own way, but also devilishly fun reading.
There are good reasons for the heavy chains wrapped around Jacob Marley’s ghost when he visits Scrooge that fateful Christmas Eve, and author Jon Clinch spares no detail as he depicts Marley in this prequel as a harsh, uncaring, coldly calculating, deceitful individual, showcasing his malevolent influence on Scrooge. The novel follows the pair from their first meeting at Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys in 1787—where Marley immediately extorts money from Scrooge—to Marley’s deathbed in 1836. Throughout, Marley’s obsession with money motivates every waking moment of his life. While Scrooge crunches the numbers (or cooks the books, if you will), Marley carries on the nastier businesses of cons, smuggling and slave trading, using various aliases and dummy corporations along the way, even going so far as to keep secrets (and cash) from Scrooge. Marley is, for want of a better phrase, more of a scrooge than Scrooge.
Clinch—who pulled a similarly remarkable feat with his first book, Finn, about the father of Huckleberry Finn—has successfully added a layer of depth and intrigue to Dickens’ beloved characters. Rereading Marley each Christmas may become as much of a tradition as rereading A Christmas Carol.