Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

Would you accept an invitation to have your hand taken by an omniscient narrator, whose wondrous words have the power to pull you back into Victorian London? A narrator who will tell you things that a Victorian novelist never, never would.

It’s an invitation that you really should accept.

You might think that your hand was being taken by Charles Dickens, because the voice is so very, very like his, and because on the journey you will see places, and meet people, that he wrote of in Bleak House. But you would be mistaken.

I took that hand of that narrator, and I found that I really couldn’t let go.

I met a young detective, Charles Maddox. He had been a policeman but he had been dismissed, for daring to question the deductions of a senior colleague. Establishing himself as a private detective was proving difficult and he had just one case.

Sixteen years earlier a man had sent his pregnant daughter away. He had learned that she had given birth to a daughter and that she had died. And that his granddaughter had gone missing. He wanted her found. It was difficult case, with few leads to follow.

And then another case was offered; a powerful lawyer, Mr Edward Tulkinghorn, summoned Charles to his offices to ask him to investigate a very delicate matter; his client, Sir Julius Cremorne, the head of a city bank, had received threatening letters. The sender had to be found.

I immediately suspected that the young detective was being used as a pawn by powerful men, and he was intelligent enough, good enough at his job, to suspect that too. He took the case.

His investigations take him to the darkest of places and reveals terrible truths. More truths than his powerful employer was willing to allow to be revealed.

I had to follow. He was so determined to establish himself as a detective, and so sure that he had to uncover the truth. But he was fallible and he was vulnerable. I had to watch over him, and I had to know the truth too.

I was scared, of what might happen, of what the truth may be, and so I had to hold the narrators hand very, very tightly.

At times I heard another voice. It was the voice of a young woman named Hester, one of a number of young people raised by guardians at The Solitary House. At first I resented this voice pulling me away from the story I so wanted to follow, but I came to realise that it was important, a fundamental part of the story.

I met so many memorable characters, all perfectly drawn, and all utterly real. It would be quite impossible mention them all, but I must mention the great-uncle with whom Charles shares a name. Maddox senior had been a great detective, but his mind and body had been overtaken by age. But there were glimpses of a great detective as he attempted to counsel his great-nephew, and it was clear that there was a strong bond between the pair.

I read such wonderful prose:  compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses.  And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do.

I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works. And I recognised themes that still resonate today.

I was asking questions until the very end, torn between turning the page quickly to find answers and reading slowly to make sure I took in so very many details.

And now I have reached the end, and though I am disturbed by what I read I could happily go back and read all over again.

The mark of a fine novel.

15 responses

  1. I’ve seen this advertised and was wondering whether to read it. I love ‘Bleak House’. I think I will add it to my wish list. Thanks for the review!

      • I’ve now read this and reviewed the book. I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as you did but I thought it very clever. I have put a link to your review if you don’t mind.

  2. I picked this up just yesterday after I read a good review elsewhere, and am glad you enjoyed it too. Unfortunately it has to go into my embargo pile as I have vowed to only read books from my TBR until the end of March – but then …

  3. So here I was, thinking that I would just have to stop reading UK blogs because it’s all such a big tease when we can’t get the books here (does that work the other way?), only to discover that this has just been published in the U.S. as The Solitary House. On my library reserve list now. (Your title is much better!)

    • Excellent – I do wish publishers would be more consistent with titles, especially now we can read blogs from all over the world. And yes, the problem does work both ways.

  4. Great review, I am sold. The lovely DogEarDiscs has been recommending I read this on Twitter and in comments on my blog. Your review has convinced me, along with his comments, to definitely see if I can give this a whirl. My only concern is that having not read Bleak House I might miss something, DED says not, what say you?

    • I must confess that I haven’t read Bleak House yet, but I did see the BBC adaptation a couple of years back. So I picked up references, but I don’t think it would have mattered I you hadn’t. So I’m with DED!

  5. Pingback: Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd « crimepieces

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