I’m the first to admit that, despite having both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in English Literature, I’m not the biggest reader of ‘classics’. I can count the number of Shakespeare’s plays that I’d like to read/see again on the fingers of one hand, can’t get past the third chapter of any Thomas Hardy novel and have only finished 2 of Charles Dickens’ tomes (and one of those was Hard Times, which doesn’t even count as a tome…). So when I was sent a review copy of Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s, I was a little worried. Inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House, and running along side it, in terms of plot, Shepherd’s novel is a look at the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. Combining her own interpretations of characters from Bleak House and A Woman in White, as well as her own creations, Shepherd has managed to breathe new life into the sometimes tired genre of Victoriana.
Shepherd’s protagonist is Charles Maddox, a young man attempting to forge a career as a private detective, having been unfairly dismissed from the Metropolitan Police after an altercation with the infamous Inspector Bucket. His great-uncle, also called Charles Maddox, is the famous thief-taker from Shepherd’s first novel, Murder at Mansfield Park. The two are close, and when the elder Maddox starts suffering from a mysterious ailment resulting in periods of memory loss and violent behaviour, Charles moves from the lodgings that he shared only with his cat into his uncle’s house. From a modern perspective, it is clear that these episodes are symptomatic of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, but Shepherd has cleverly left it unnamed. The puzzlement and fear that Charles and his great-uncle’s servants feel when confronted with the disease echoes Maddox’s confusion, making this aspect of the story even more poignant.
Aside from the familial situation, Charles’ life is further complicated by the case that he is asked to look into, by the sinister solicitor Tulkinghorn. Engaged to discover the author of some anonymous letters, Charles is convinced that there is more to the case than meets the eye, a view that is confirmed when he meets intense, and violent, opposition to his investigations. Determined to discover what Tulkinghorn and his cronies are hiding, he delves deeper, resulting in his own life and those of his loved ones being threatened. There are some gory sections, including one particularly nasty scene which made me reach for something to hide behind. Shepherd doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to representing the grim reality of aspects of Victorian London that Dickens, in view of the sensibilities of his readers, could only hint at.
Charles’ sections of the novel have an omniscient narrator who invites the reader to accompany him as he watches Charles and his investigations. Running alongside this narrative is that of Hester, an inhabitant of The Solitary House. She has been taken there by a mysterious ‘guardian’, and is one of a number of girls who live there. She speaks with great affection for her guardian, and for Mr. Jarvis, the man in charge. As her narrative begins, it is easy to think that she is just naive (for example, her descriptions of her mother’s frequent male ‘callers’ leave the reader in no doubt as to her profession, but her daughter is unaware), but it quickly becomes more sinister. It is hard to see how Hester and Mr. Jarvis fit with Charles’ story, but both tales are skilfully, and movingly, brought together at the end of the novel, with a twist that I didn’t see coming. As I’m the annoying person who guesses the murderer within 5 minutes of an episode of Inspector Morse beginning, this was quite a surprise…
Shepherd has written an atmospheric and thrilling novel, which invokes the spirit of Dickens, but in a very modern way. If I was going to complain about anything, it would be that the occasional comments from the omniscient narrator which looked back at the Victorian period from a modern view-point are annoying and unnecessary, pulling the reader out of the grim, smoky atmosphere just as they are getting used to it. Despite this irritation however, I found Tom-All-Alone’s a fascinating look at Dickensian London, as well as an intriguing murder mystery.
This book was provided as a review copy, but I was not paid for my review, and the views expressed are mine.