Christmas Gifts for Readers No. 3
I found Tom All Alone’s on the blog The Eloquent Page (in which Paul Holmes usually focuses on Science Fiction) and I was intrigued enough to go and buy a copy for myself. Before I go any further I’d like to point out that Tom All Alone’s is also published as The Solitary House in the United States and Canada.
Why would this book make a Christmas Gift? Well, there seems to be a tradition that novels set in Victorian London should be read in the dark days around Christmas (Australian readers experience things differently of course!). As I write this for example, its early on a cold November morning and as the day develops I doubt the weather will improve all that much before it gets dark again around 4.30pm. There’s something about Dickensian themes which seem to suit this time, and in Tom All Alone’s there is plenty of general murkiness and gloom to match what we in Britain see outside our windows.
Tom All Alone’s is essentially a detective novel. Charles Maddox, a young ex-policeman has set himself up as a thief-taker. His Uncle, who Charles reveres, was an eminent detective and has mentored young Charles from his early boy-hood in the skills of his work, but alas is now a very elderly man but is still available as a sounding-board to Charles when particularly tricky problems need to be solved. Charles receives a commission from the scheming lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn but soon realises that this is a poisoned chalice which will lead him into some very dark places.
Lynn Shepherd is not constrained by the limits of Victorian sensibility in describing the gruesome murders which follow, nor the terrible conditions of the London slums in which the murders take place. We are taken on a tour around the narrow passages of central London, going in and out of coffee houses, rat-catching pits, disease-ridden brothels, foetid inns and rancid slums with no need to cover up the vile conditions of the time. Perhaps the most shocking descriptions the fate of the mentally ill (and those unfortunates who ended up in private asylums because their family wanted them safely out of the way).
A parallel narrative interleaves with the story of Charles’ investigations. A young woman called Hester writes in the first person about her life in The Solitary House, which at first appears to be an idyllic setting peopled by kindly people who form a strong community of mutual support and close friendship. From the start, Hester seems to be an untrustworthy narrator; things seem too good to be true and we want to know what exactly is going on here? As the novel develops a sinister tone creeps into Hester’s writing and the two narratives soon begin to feed into each other, increasing the sense of mystery (and horror) behind Charles’ investigations.
Lynn Shepherd is a highly-skilled writer. I read this quite long book in three days and looked forward to resuming my reading whenever I put it down. Sometimes a book is good but you still have to slog through it (Samson’s Dominion perhaps?), but with Tom All Alone’s I was swept up into the atmosphere of London’s loathsome alleys and felt as if I was accompanying Charles Maddox as new layers of the horrific plot were revealed. Her character writing is excellent and she manages to achieve many distinctive voices. I especially liked Inspector Bucket which achieved just the right mix of sincerity and duplicity.
While the book’s setting is Victorian, the book is modern in many ways and the author has not tried to replicate Victorian verbosity and solemnity. There are touches of humour here and there and she indulges in occasional authorial interjections from the 21st century such as “And most of what Sir Julius Cremorne was doing was – in the strict sense of the term – perfectly legal, since the age of consent in 1850 was twelve, not sixteen”, or her reference to P D James’s book about the Ratcliffe Highway murders, The Maul and Pear Tree, the conclusions of which she contrasts with the official police investigation of the time.
As I read this book, my admiration for Lynn Shepherd developed with her complex plotting, but it was when I read her afterword at the end of the novel that I really understood the cleverness of what she has achieved . Tom All Alone’s is inspired by three books, Bleak House (Charles Dickens), The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), and London Labour and the London Poor (by Henry Mayhew). Lynn’s book is based primarily on Bleak House, which she considers to be Dickens’ masterpiece. She writes,
“I have interleaved my own mystery with the characters and episodes of his novel, and used his chapter titles for events in my own, though each time with a new twist, and a rather different meaning”.
Even the book’s title comes from Bleak House, for Tom All Alone’s (a disease-ridden slum) was one of the titles which Dickens considered giving to his book before settling on Bleak House. While I picked up on a few of the references to Bleak House and The Woman in White, I was left thinking that it would be fascinating to read a more detailed commentary on the cross-referencing between her sources.
For a long time I have been hoping to find a Victorian era novel to equal Michel Faber’s masterpiece The Crimson Petal and the White, and I think Lynn Shepherd has got pretty close to it in Tom All Alone’s. I was also reminded of Sarah Waters’ book Fingersmith with which Tom All Alone’s shares some common themes. From the afterword, I get the impression that Tom All Alone’s is one-off novel but this reader at least would be delighted to hear that it is the first in a series. Charles Maddox is a strong and appealing character who could be developed over many further books and I hope the author produces a follow-up before too long.
Note 6 January 2013 – Lynn’s new book featuring Charles Maddox has just been published. See my review A Treacherous Likeness.