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Esther Summerson, whose warmth is balanced by an almost Zen equanimity in the face of a great reversal of fortune, is an attractive heroine - and Dickens' only female narrator (for part of the novel at least). But the real subject here, and perhaps the greatest of several villains, is the Chancery Court, whose malevolent presence hovers like a living fog over all the characters' lives, as threatening in its way as one of Stephen King's more amorphous menaces. The law itself allows ample play to Dickens' satirical pen. As always, the subject of debt is felt, a sickening weight on one of the characters and leverage against his finer nature. Hidden too in the heart of this immense masterpiece is a murder mystery worthy of Conan Doyle himself, with the wonderful Inspector Bucket leaving a hint of what marvels Dickens could have worked with his own detective series.

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