This is an extraordinarily good novel. The reader who picks it up knowing nothing whatsoever of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry Mayhew or John Fowles will find a well-written and exciting thriller, carefully contrived and satisfyingly resolved. At the end of the book (but not before because there are spoilers lurking there) they can read the author's note and find out how Shepherd has used both the Victorians and the writer of The French Lieutenant's Woman to enhance her narrative.
The first thing to say about it is this: it's not a difficult book though it is intricately plotted. It welcomes you in, instead of keeping you at a distance. From the very first page, you are alongside Charles Maddox, a young ex-policeman, as he is drawn into a situation which becomes through the course of the novel more and more dangerous and intriguing. We meet his uncle, who is suffering from a form of dementia that allows him lucid periods but causes many extremely confused episodes as well. Charles goes to live in his uncle's house and there we meet the servants who look after the elderly Maddox. Among them is Molly, a beautiful black woman who is, as far as we know, mute. She has a particularly interesting part to play in the story.
Charles (with a nod to Dickens in his name) is engaged by none other than the lawyer Tulkinghorn to investigate some anonymous letters. What ensues is a page-turning, absorbing and sometimes heart-stoppingly exciting story of bad deeds in high places, nefarious goings-on in all levels of society, and several brutal murders along the way. And who is Charles's helper in pursuit of the baddies? Why, none other than Bucket of the Detective. By the end of the book the crimes are solved, of course, though there is one tantalizing narrative thread left hanging (I won't say what that is), and so we can hope that there might be a second adventure for this most engaging of detectives.
The themes of madness, sexual predation, blackmail and horrendous poverty are set in a London of appalling squalor and dirt. Shepherd's descriptions of the city are terrific, and in this she knowingly echoes Dickens and comes out well from the comparison. Tom-All-Alone's is an unconsecrated graveyard and it's a truly horrific place where the strands of the novel are finally tied up.
This is a cracking thriller but it's also much more than that. Readers of Bleak House and The Woman in White will see that what they've been given here is a braiding together of plot threads and characters from the Victorian novels, together with a view of London much influenced by Henry Mayhew's classic London Labour and the London Poor. Tulkinghorn and Bucket are here. A rag and bone shop goes up in flames. The crossing-sweeper, Joe, and George who runs a shooting gallery play important parts in Charles Maddox's investigations. Alan Woodcourt, the doctor, is most helpful to our hero... and so on. Even the structure of the novel mirrors that of Bleak House, with the main story interrupted every so often by a first person narrative written by someone called Hester. As you read, you're constantly asking yourself: Is this an echo of something? Or isn’t it?
Perhaps the most inspired thing Shepherd has done is to endow Tulkinghorn's chambers with the entire contents of Sir John Soane's House in Lincoln's Inn Fields. From Bleak House we know that these two buildings are very close to one another, but merging them allows the Museum to be used for wonderful shocks and alarms. It's also a place that provides a uniquely sinister atmosphere. If anyone doesn’t know it, it's well worth seeking out. Here is a link about a visit to it which may be of interest.
So: we have Victorian novels interwoven with a modern crime novel. That in itself would be interesting enough, but Shepherd has chosen to narrate the main story in a modern voice with a God-like perspective, and even though this trick can be obtrusive and tiresome in the wrong hands, it never strikes a false note in this book. For instance:
Charles realizes suddenly that the lad's not unnerved by what he saw after all, he's positively revelling in it. As a more celebrated novelist than I once said, 'We can sometimes recognize the looks of a century ago on a modern face, but never those of a century to come.' And this lad - had Charles but known it – is the very model of a modern teenage geek.
That's clever. 'Geek', though associated with the internet age, is the kind of word you feel Dickens would have enjoyed. And of course the echo of Gilbert and Sullivan in 'the very model of' takes us right back to the past again.
To sum up: Tom-All-Alone's is a book that's both enjoyable and intelligent. I can heartily recommend it, and I hope Lynn Shepherd is even now writing the next Charles Maddox story. There is the matter of that very tantalizing loose end... (Adèle Geras)