Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
London, 1850. Fog in the air and filth in the streets, from the rat-infested graveyard of Tom-All-Alone’s to the elegant chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the formidable lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn has powerful clients to protect, and a deadly secret to hide. Only that secret is now under threat from a shadowy and unseen adversary – an adversary who must be tracked down at all costs, before it’s too late. Who better for such a task than young Charles Maddox? Unfairly dismissed from the police force, Charles is struggling to establish himself as a private detective. Only business is slow and his one case a dead end, so when Tulkinghorn offers a handsome price for an apparently simple job Charles is unable to resist. But as he soon discovers, nothing here is what it seems. An assignment that starts with anonymous letters leads soon to a brutal murder, as the investigation lures Charles ever deeper into the terrible darkness Tulkinghorn will stop at nothing to conceal.
Inspired by Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, Tom-All-Alone’s is a new and gripping Victorian murder mystery which immerses the reader in a grim London underworld that Dickens could only hint at – a world in which girls as young as ten work the night as prostitutes, unwanted babies are ruthlessly disposed of, and those who threaten the rank and reputations of great men are eliminated at once, and without remorse.
It seems entirely appropriate that on the day that marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dicken’s birth I bring you a review of a new book inspired by his body of work. Regular readers will know that I tend to focus primarily on horror, science fiction and fantasy but occasionally I like to read something that is a bit outside my comfort zone. I certainly don’t read a huge amount of historical fiction but when I heard about Tom-All-Alone’s I have to admit that I was intrigued. The premise of a mystery set in the mists of Dickensian London appeals and by the time I got to the bottom of page one and read “Night and day London moves and sweats and bawls, as riddled with life as a corpse with maggots”, I was sold.
Interspersed throughout the main story there is a second narrative following the story of a young woman called Hester. The chapters she appears in detail her life with friends in the seemingly idyllic Solitary House. Through the course of the novel the author starts to slowly drip feed the reader how Hester’s tale ties in with the case that Maddox is investigating.
Like Dickens there are many larger than life characters that that vie for your attention, all of them pitched perfectly and each memorable in their own way. Charles Maddox is still finding his feet in his role as a detective and the mistakes that he makes feel that much more real. He is young man driven to discover the truth at all costs.
Maddox has a great uncle who he shares a name with. Maddox Snr was a great ‘ thief taker‘ in his time but is suffering from the vagaries of old age. It is becoming increasingly obvious to his family and friends that his once razor sharp mind is beginning to fail him. One moment he is fine, the next his is violent and then suddenly almost catatonic. He endeavours to offer his nephew what little assistance he can but is dying by degrees. The scenes between the two men are particularly touching and very effective. The reader gets glimpses of the investigator the old man once was and the high regard that his nephew still holds him in. Reading the novel with 21st century eyes it is interesting to see how 19th century characters deal with a condition as debilitating as Alzheimer’s.
It is only right and proper for a private investigator to have an arch-nemesis on the police force and in Maddox case this comes in the form of inimitable Mr Bucket of the Detective. It’s a highlight to see how their relationship evolves throughout the novel.
It’s always a pleasure to discover a writer whose work instantly clicks with you. I sincerely hope there will be further mysteries featuring Charles Maddox. The evocative setting, well observed characters and tantalising storytelling had me hooked from the very outset. The writing deftly brings to life all the sights and sounds of the metropolis, however grotesque they have the potential to be. The opportunity to delve into the dark underbelly of Victorian society is just too good to miss. Lynn Shepherd’s London is a world of corruption, violence, and dark unpleasant secrets with a little blackmail thrown in for good measure. This is exactly the sort of story I’d like to see adapted for the screen. Actually if the BBC happens upon this review I’m thinking lavish adaption perhaps in time for next winter? Seriously, you’d be on to a winner.
Tom-All-Alone’s is published by Corsair and is available in the UK now and will be published as The Solitary House in US/Canada on 1st May 2012.