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.
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.