About eighteen months ago I read Lynn Shepherd's first book, Murder at Mansfield Park, which I reviewed here. I will admit that I was not sure if I really wanted to read it or not, as I am not overly keen on books that use Jane Austen as the excuse for a re-write, but Lynn wrote to me so nicely and sent me a copy so what could I do? I was worried I might not like it and simply hate having to tell an author so, but of course I was wrong and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So belated apologies to Lynn for doubting her.
I note in this earlier review that I wondered what Lynn would do next - how about bumping off Lady Catherine de Burgh or Sir Walter Eliot, neither of whom would be much mourned. Instead I now find out that Lynn has turned her attention to the world of Bleak House and its characters and, this being Dickens Year, strikes me as being a good choice.
Before I go any further, I would like to say that knowledge of Bleak House and its story line is not necessary to enjoy Tom All Alone's. It can be read as a stand alone and you will not miss anything at all. BUT, should you know Bleak House, and I do, then another layer of enjoyment is added as, once again, the author takes the protagonists of BH and turns their characters and thoughts inside out so you expect one thing and get another. This is very clever indeed and threw me completely.
It is London 1850. The book opens with familiar lines "London. Michaelmas term lately begun and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall" and we are off, transported to the foggy, filthy streets of Victorian London and where we meet Charles Maddox once again, struggling to set himself up as a private detective after being unfairly dismissed from the police force - he blames Inspector Bucket for this. He is not doing too well so when the lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn offers him a handsome price for an apparently simple job, Charles is unable to resist. Of course, all Bleak House readers will know that Tulkinghorn is a nasty devious evil man and know that something awful is going to happen. And so it does.
I am not going to go any further and tell you the ins and out of the plot, which are far too intricate for me to sum up in one post, but take it from me that there is a touch of Jack the Ripper lurking in a particularly vicious and gruesome murder, there is a lost child thrown into the mix, kindly Mr Jarndyce Jarvis is not what he seems to be, nor is his ward Esther Hester and there is a rather nasty solution to his benevolence and kindness.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book as its portrayal of the London conjures up the most wonderful pictures, much as Dickens did:
"There's no lamp at the corner of the street, just the little charcoal furnace of the chestnut seller, which throws a red glow up at her face, and onto the drawn features of four dirty little children clustered around her skirts. Not for the first time, the woman has a swollen black bruise around one eye......the afternoon seems suspended between day and dark and the circles of milky light ast by the gas lamps dispel the gloom no more than a few feet around"
The reader can almost smell the dirty and decay and the damp and the rotting air and glad I am that I found myself swept up in the narrative because, as you may have noticed from the paragraph above, it is written in the present tense. I have been fairly pungent in my comments on Random about books written in this style, ie - I dislike them but I have to be honest and say that when I have disliked a book written in this tense, I find it is because I don't care for the book anyway and the present or past tense has nothing to do with it. It does make me more ready to criticise a book, ok not fair I know but that is the way it goes - on the other hand it does mean that if I enjoy a book despite this, then it must be a pretty good read to make me forget which tense it is in.
I like the author's hero, Charles Maddox, who gets rather caught up in this mad whirl of events and, being an idealistic and earnest young man despite all his disappointments, finds he is being sucked into bewildering situations. A little naive at times I feel, but his essential goodness and determination shine through and he does not give up.I look forward with great enthusiasm to Lynn Shepherd's next book and I am left wondering, as I was at the end of her first, where she will go next and which period will she choose? I rather fancy Dark Doings at Barchester Towers in which we find Obadiah Slope is the hero, the Dean is a kleptomaniac, Mrs Proudie a serial adulterer and the Warden a fraudster who is raiding the Barchester coffers.
However, ignore my frivolity as, joking aside, this is a well written, atmospheric book which pays tribute to Dickens and stands on its own merits. I loved it. Do read.