Of the 5 texts in this volume, only one can be attributed surely to Defoe.
The texts on Sheppard relate the latter's extraordinary prison escapes and his wanderings through London until his execution. Those on Jonathan Wild explain how a criminal, playing very cleverly and deadly both thief and thief-catcher, could build a fortune.
These are minor works by Defoe, and they have absolutely not the same high standard as his masterpieces (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders).
The text(s) on Wild is completely overshadowed by the treatment of the same story by Henry Fielding. Fielding's work is a masterpiece and highly recommended.
The introduction of this volume by Richard Holmes is excellent.
Only for Defoe fans.
on 20 April 2006
In his introduction, the editor gives his ratings for the authenticity of these pieces as works of Defoe. In the first (Jack Sheppard) piece he rates it as not being by Defoe, the second (Jack Sheppard again) as being possibly by Defoe, and the third (Jonathan Wild) as being definitely by Defoe.
Well I see everything the wrong way round! The first Jack Sheppard piece is obviously by Defoe, and it is easy to see from reading it why an established and successful author like Defoe should take an interest in the subject. It is a fine work of journalistic art, organically perfect, written by someone who is used to writing such. I like the way that the humour accumulates and Jack Sheppard's audacious character and wit emerges through it. Hackwork this is definitely NOT.
The second piece about Jack Sheppard is obviously by Sheppard himself. Defoe may well have had a hand in giving him the pen and paper for it because it resolves the astounding mystery of his escape from the Castle and effectively completes the first piece. I like the way that Sheppard's natural wit becomes a little self-conscious and mannered with pen and paper in the condemned cell, but it is a nice read, perhaps with Defoe's editoring.
Together their coverage of Sheppard's life is a perfect and complete work of journalistic art worthy of Defoe, a vivid portrait of the subject and his London. It is a biography-autobiography and so it resembles The Storm in structure.
But there are huge doubts about the authenticity of the Jonathan Wild piece and it does not look like a work of Defoe. It could have been written by any good lawyer or journalist and there is nothing in it to show why a successful literary artist like Defoe should be doing it. It is good hackwork, but it repeats itself over an important point in a way that is clumsy and lacks Defoe's perfection of form, and its attitude to Christian principles is demur and Defoe's never was. The Jonathan Wild piece is certainly worth having and it is historically valuable, but it is not great literature. The main interest in this is that it illustrates how a man with an idea for controlling crime in London (this was before policing existed) should become corrupted by it.
I like the cover design but I wish the typeface was bigger and printed black.