Written by Lynn Shepherd — It seems rather apt that in the year we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens that crime author Lynn Shepherd has chosen one of his books as the inspiration for her new novel, Tom-All-Alone’s. And it’s even more fitting that Crime Fiction Lover brings you the review on 7 February, Dickens’ birthday – he wrote some great detective stories.
Tom-All-Alone’s (titled The Solitary House in the US) is based on Bleak House, which Dickens published as a serialised piece over 20 months between 1852 and 1853. It follows on from Shepherd’s hugely successful debut historical novel Murder at Mansfield Park, published by Corsair in November 2011, however we move 40 years on from the Regency period to the reign of Queen Victoria. Charles Maddox is the great nephew and namesake of the detective introduced in the investigation at Mansfield Park. Having turned his back on a career in medicine, disappointing his family in the process, Charles has chosen to follow in his great uncle’s footsteps and become a thief taker.
It’s not the most popular of occupations and as the book opens Charles has been dismissed from the Metropolitan Police for insubordination and is now trying to establish himself as a private detective. Finding cases is proving difficult until he’s summoned to the office of Mr Edward Tulkinghorn, who commissions him to discover who has been sending a wealthy financier a series of unpleasant letters. There’s more to this than meets the eye and Charles is being kept in the dark by his client, who is every bit as malevolent and manipulative as the Mr Tulkinghorn of Bleak House.
There is a secondary investigation Charles is asked to look into by another client, Mr Chadwick, who is searching for his missing grandchild. As the book opens, the reader meets the young detective as he searches London’s dark, dangerous streets and its desolate graveyards. Is it possible that the two cases are connected?
Necessity soon requires Charles to move into the home of his great uncle, who seems to be suffering from the early signs of what would probably be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s. However, in his more lucid moments he’s able to offer the younger detective guidance. The nephew’s investigation is methodical and follows the techniques employed by his uncle. He soon finds his quarry, but things take a rather sinister turn when his suspect is murdered and he finds himself on the perilous quest to uncover the truth that Tulkinghorn and his cohorts are keen to keep hidden.
Elements of Bleak House are glimpsed throughout but it’s clear from the outset that this is very much Shepherd’s own story and should be read as such. That the Dickens characters pop up here and there is more a comfort than a necessity. This is a well-researched, well-crafted book that shows a deep understanding not just of the original work but also the social issues the great author championed.
If you enjoyed Murder at Mansfield Park, you won’t be disappointed by Tom-All-Alone’s and I’m sure that Dickens fans would most definitely approve. This is one book you really should add to your reading list.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars