Reviewed by Drennan Spitzer

Note: This title is published as The Solitary House in the United States.

Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s tells the story of Charles Maddox, a detective working in London in the year 1850. Charles has been hired by a man to search for his illegitimate granddaughter, born some years before. Additionally, Charles is hired by attorney Edward Tulkinghorn to discover who is responsible for sending threatening letters to one of Tulkinghorn’s upper class clients. As Charles faces a family crisis, he attempts to uncover the answer to these two mysteries, but any progress he makes seems only to lead to more questions and to a cover-up more sinister than Charles could have imagined.

In Tom-All-Alone’s Lynn Shepherd recreates the darker side of Victorian London. While it may be easy for contemporary readers to romanticize Victorian culture—probably thanks to the abundance of overly sentimentalized adaptations of Dickens’s novels—Shepherd reminds us of the very social issues with which Dickens himself was concerned: disparities in income and social class, the exploitation of children, the marginalized position of women, the social constructions of “madness,” and a particular attitude surrounding illicit sex.

Drawing on threads borrowed from Dickens’s classic Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Shepherd writes a detective story set in the dirty, seedy neighborhoods of Victorian London. In her “Acknowledgments”, Shepherd explains that she seeks to “create a ‘space between’ these two great novels, where [she] could locate a new and independent story of my own, and explore some of the same nineteenth-century themes of secrecy, madness, power, and abuse.” Additionally, in her “Acknowledgments”, Shepherd reminds us that in Bleak House Dickens manages to “create a whole new literary genre: the detective mystery,” and it is just such a work that Shepherd herself creates. In addition to her use of Bleak House and The Woman in White, Shepherd is also clearly indebted to Collins’s The Moonstone, which is really the first full-blown “detective mystery”. What Shepherd really accomplishes, then, is not just a “detective mystery” but a reexamination of our own constructions of Victorian England and the vices endemic to the culture and time period.

Shepherd’s writing style feels as though she is consciously trying to be literary in nature, mimicking to some extent the style of Dickens and Collins. This leads to word choice and even sentence structures that may feel a bit foreign and archaic to contemporary American readers. Shepherd’s narrator is particularly compelling in that here we have a narrator that is part of both the world the reader lives in and the world of the novel. This is evident when the narrator consciously works to bridge the gap between these two cultures, so different in some significant ways. Interspersed with the main narrative are sections titled “Hester’s Narrative”, devoted to an entirely different narrator and point of view. While I can see that, again, these sections mirror the writing of Dickens and Collins in some interesting ways, the “Hester” sections are a bit of a distraction and feel forced. In fact, Hester herself feels like a poor reflection of the character of Esther in Bleak House. In the end, the “Hester” sections do not add much to the novel. Thematically, they work to give us a kind of perspective on madness and the effects of sexual abuse in Victorian England (or maybe any culture); they really don’t do much to advance the story.

Additionally, the references to Dickens’s and Collins’ work feel a bit heavy handed at times. For example, Lady Deadlock, a central character in Bleak House, is mentioned several times in passing, yet these references do not add to the novel, do not forward its plot, do not add anything in the way of thematic texture. Rather, they work merely as reminders that Shepherd’s novel is itself a kind of retelling of the society that Dickens presents. And yet, one is left with the feeling that Shepherd is trying a bit too hard to be clever and to work in threads borrowed from her literary predecessors. Shepherd’s novel would be even more successful if she allowed it to stand on its own.

As a reader, I enjoy a good mystery as well as a nicely constructed period piece. Shepherd manages to give me both of these. Overall, her novel is both engaging and well written. It seems that one trend in contemporary publishing is mysteries that are somewhat comic in tone, presenting smart, snarky detective figures, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Shepherd avoids this tone, offering a work that is more serious and literary in nature. While this tone, combined with the critique of Victorian society, makes the work compelling for me, some readers will find it off putting, I suspect.

Shepherd has made me want to revisit Dickens’s Bleak House and Collins’ The Woman in White and The Moonstone. I think that Shepherd would consider that high praise; I certainly mean it as such. I am also eager to read Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park as well as any other fiction she may publish in the future.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Drennan Spitzer is a writer and blogger from California who now resides in New England. She writes creatively, blogs publicly, and journals privately. You can find her at http://drennanspitzer.com.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Constable & Robinson. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.