Tom-All-Alone’s – Lynn Shepherd

I have always been a little dubious about books that are sequels, prequels or tales that combine a great classic in them. I have tried a few spin offs in my time and firstly there is the question of if they can live up to the classic itself and secondly can they provide anything original to the world we most likely already know, this has also made me wonder how limiting it can be or is it just an author regurgitating another authors ideas? So when Gavin chose ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’, or ‘The Solitary House’ as it is known in North America, for the latest Readers Book Club, I have to admit I went into it with some trepidation, especially as I had not read Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ which this book runs alongside.

*** Corsair Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ opens in 1850’s London we meet Charles Maddox, a former policeman and now private investigator in the days when ‘the Detective’ is a role that is just forming. Maddox has just been given a second case to track down the writer of some threatening letters by the eminent and feared lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn, a new case being just what Maddox needs as the only other case he has got, finding a long lost girl in London (rather like finding a needle in a haystack) is dragging, even if the new case seems a small one. However as Maddox investigates people start to die and he realises that there is much more than meets the eye of these letters and indeed the man who hired him to solve the riddle.

The premise of the book is an intriguing one. I have to admit though that I was thrown from the start by the narration of the novel initially. The voice we get is a modern one and one that tells us the tale in an all-seeing and all knowing way. If a character misses something, the narrator points it out and the fact the character misses it, there a quips and factual asides and whilst there was no denying it was readable it initially jarred with me a bit. Who was this narrator, why were they so all knowing, was I being patronised, was I being played with? I couldn’t work it out, which initially annoyed me but then intrigued me. Then suddenly everything changed again and we were being told a completely different story from a completely different perspective in the form of a young woman named Hester. Stranger and stranger as I read on and found Dickens himself appearing in the book I found myself thinking ‘blimey, Ms Shepherd likes to take a risk with her readers’.

“As we wait for the slow dark hours to pass, we might do no worse than stand, as Dickens himself once stood, in the irregular square at the crossing point of the seven narrow passages that give this place its name. Dickens talked of arriving ‘Belzoni-like, at the entrance’, and if you’re thinking that you’ve heard that name before and recently, then you’re right. It was this same Giovanni Belzoni who brought back the sarcophagus that holds pride of place in Mr Tulkinghorn’s labyrinthine collection. It was the same Belzoni, moreover, who was the first to find entrance to the inner chamber of the second pyramid of Giza, and the first to penetrate inside. Hence, I suppose, Dickens’ choice of analogy. It is certainly true that Egypt can hold no darker ways, no more obscure secrets, and no more foreboding, claustrophobic tunnels than those that confront us here. In the brightest daylight it’s hard to see far, the air is so dense with grit and coal smoke, and even a ‘regular Londoner’ would hesitate to come here by night, as we have. So let us explore a little, while we wait for Charles.”

I think that excerpt shows both sides pro and con of the prose style whilst you are getting used to it. There is the all knowing, the factual references and yet there is a sense of mystery and also the atmosphere of the city at the time. This is a Marmite technique though as people will either love it or hate it. I have to admit that if ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ had not been a book that I was reading for the Readers Book Club then I think I probably would have stopped reading at this point as I was feeling so thrown by it all even though I was loving the world Lynn Shepherd was creating. However, as with any book group read I encounter no matter how tricky it is I do read on (yes Elizabeth Gaskell and that ‘Mary Barton’ I am thinking of you) and in this particular case I am really glad I did because I would have missed out. As the book went on I stopped noticing the style and found myself completely immersed in the era and the twists and turns in the tale.

Lynn Shepherd clearly loves the Victorian era and that comes across in every single page and becomes contagious. It was some of the observations of London at the time, and the aside stories of prostitutes, unwanted babies and what happened to them, grisly murders etc, and little set pieces off the central story that really hooked me in. I also thought the fact that she weaves several mysteries, as there are really four at the heart of this book, so cleverly and so confusingly (in a good way) really added to its charms.

So what about its relation to ‘Bleak House’? Well, whilst I have not read the book I decided – in the name of research and so we could have a more rounded discussion with Lynn for the podcast, I would watch the BBC adaptation (which The Beard oddly adored) so I could compare. I was amazed how little of the whole story she used though Tulkinghorn and an important thing that happens to him in ‘Bleak House’ does very much become part of the mysteries here. Speaking to Lynn, which know not every reader will be lucky enough to do, did make sense of the narration in the book though, that is how Dickens’ does it in ‘Bleak House’ and makes me think that while it stands alone, as Gavin’s review will tell you as he had not read ‘Bleak House’, I think having read the classic might help you get into the book better.

Overall I enjoyed ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ yet like another Victorian based book I read recently I would have liked it to have been longer as so much is going on, and I am not saying that because ‘Bleak House’ is a monster book. I was happy with what I got out of the book yet I would have liked more of Charles Maddox’s domestic story, how he moves in with his uncle (another crime mastermind who reminded me of an elderly Holmes, also called Charles Maddox) who is in the start of what I hazarded was dementia and the relationship between Maddox and Molly. I would also have liked longer for the threads to build up and a slightly more drawn out ending which all comes so quickly, the book suddenly revs up about two thirds in and that bit is addictive. This is all, though I am worrying it doesn’t sound it, a compliment to Lynn Shepherd’s writing… I wanted more of it over a longer tale. I loved the atmosphere and her characters, so I am hoping a Maddox standalone of any literary nod is on the cards, though I will be interested to see what he does with the Shelley’s next too. Oh and biggest compliment of all – I now want to read, and have indeed bought, ‘Bleak House’ all for myself. I never thought I would find myself saying that.

You can see Gavin’s review here and listen to us talking to Lynn here. Who else had read ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ and what did you think? If you read it without reading (or watching, cough) ‘Bleak House’ how did you find it? What about if you had read (mumbles again, or watched) ‘Bleak House’ what was your reaction? Did anyone wonder how Dickens might have reacted to Shepherd’s twist on Tulkinghorn’s character at the end? Are you planning on reading this at any point? I would highly recommend this as a book group choice as it would be sure to create some lively discussion. All thoughts welcomed as always.


Filed under Constable & Robinson Publishing, Corsair Books, Lynn Shepherd, Review, The Readers Podcast

20 responses to “Tom-All-Alone’s – Lynn Shepherd

  1. A sequel to Bleak House!!!!! I must read!!!!!! Love Bleak House…

  2. Adele Geras

    I loved both Lynn’s books and so glad you’re finding the experience interesting! Love the intrusion/inclusion of the author’s voice in this instance!

    • I initially didn’t like the voice Adele but eventually it grew on me, I think I was just spending too much time trying to be clever and work out who or why the voice was as it was, if you know what I mean?

      I am looking forward to the next one which is already sat in my TBR!

  3. I loved T-A-A’s; I thought the unusual narratorial perspective solved a lot of the problems endemic in historical fiction. I’ve always been disappointed by works of historical fiction that are either i) entirely modern in their stylistic approach (which often results in massive anachronisms and faux-pas), or ii) entirely archaic/traditional. Lynn Shepherd’s fusion of old-fashioned stylistic phrasings/dialogue with a modern narratorial p.o.v is just masterful – it doesn’t ignore the fact that the reader is living in the 21st Century – and I really liked the inclusive second-person perspective (that is, “we” instead of “I” pov etc.).

    I think the mix-up of traditional-sounding dialogue with a very modern and self-aware narrator does a great job and being sympathetic with *both* the characters and the reader, simultaneously – which is where a lot of historical fiction falls down for me.

    But most of all, I just loved the unremitting, ferocious pace and craziness of the book. I thought it was dark and gritty and, to be honest, pretty bonkers: blackmail, corruption, murder, conspiracy, rape, a lunatic asylum, unmarked graves, etc. – great stuff! And the cast itself is just delightfully OTT and Dickens-esque: prostitutes, assassin’s, scheming bankers, maverick detectives, Gothic Victoriana at its best.

    So glad you read it. Great review 🙂

    • Thanks Tom, I was worried that people might see this as me digging into the book, the same worried me with When Nights Were Cold a few weeks ago. I did enjoy it a lot once I got used to it, I just needed more of it to get in the swing I think. I agree though that the angle is clever in terms of the issues around historical modern novels and the narrator. Have you read Gillespie and I yet? Jane Harris masters it, I think every neo-Voctorian novel I read will probably be compared to that for life.

  4. Laura Caldwell

    Well, I just did not care for this book and gave it up after about 60 pages. I too enjoyed the multiple narrators, but could not get past her long descriptions of things/people that I thought unnecessary or at least, overly done. For example, there was a description of a maid opening the door, I think, and it went on for a full paragraph! Now maybe that maid had a large part in the plot later on (?) but I just couldn’t take it. There was also the added issue that I was reading The House of Mirth at the time as well, and probably unfairly compared this book to that? I think it was just personal preference. I have liked all the books that you and Gav have reviewed on your podcast book club except this one, Redemption in Indigo, and Diving Belles, and I know that they were all popular with many people.

    • I can understadn why people might have been put off by this book if the narrator jarred a little as its a tricky one to adjust too. Not so the descriptions, I loved how Lynn evoked the period and felt her enthusiasm for it. That bit sat well with me, partly as I had just read The House of Mirth and there is sooooo much description in that but if done well is just great to read.

      Did you not like Diving Belles? (Simon faints on the floor, hahaha)

  5. sharkell

    An intriguing review. Not sure if this is for me or not. I think I’ll read Bleak House first (but not sure when that will be).

  6. gaskella

    I know I’ll love this, I feel I should probably read (or re-watch) Bleak House first though… would you recommend this?

    • Hmmmm tis a tricky one this Annabel. You see Gav really liked it and had not watched the show or read the book, I had watched the show but not read the book so missed things like the narrative homage etc yet saw characters in it that made me smile. BUT also and I didnt mention this in the review… I kept looking for more of the show in the book so when Hester turned up I, wrongly, assumed it was Esther and I think that made me think I knew the story that was coming when I didn’t.

      That probably isnt helpful at all.

  7. Boy, I wanted to love this book because, but I just didn’t. You said that you wished it had been longer, and I had just the opposite feeling. I thought the story needed to be tightened up a bit. I almost quit reading it so many times, but I pushed through and I was rewarded when it picked up the pace at the end. I’m anxious to listen to the podcast 🙂

  8. ummlilia

    I have this from my library but have decided to read Bleak House first after listening to the podcast. I am really enjoying it, so whether I like Tom All Alone’s or not, I will definitely have got something from the experience..

    • Oh report back, how brilliant that we accidentally made you go and read Bleak House, hoorah to you – and good luck and be brave, its so huge lol.

      • ummlilia

        Well, Bleak House was wonderful. I had it on Kindle from way back and wish I had read it sooner. It looks long but once you get into the story it fairly motors along.
        Now that I have started Tom- All-Alone’s (just) I am glad I did it this way round. I think I would have enjoyed it as a stand-alone book , but I get little stabs of pleasure from recognising details from the Dickens. Incidentally it’s a long time since I read any Dickens,being more of Bronte lover, and I was surprised how ‘modern’ the language was, given how long ago he was writing. A ‘win-win’ I think..

      • That is really interesting to hear Ummlilia, maybe once I have read Bleak House, though I cant say I am planning on that being too soon but one day, I should come back to Tom-All-Alone’s again and see if I get it even more.

        Definitely sounds like a win-win situation.

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