Author: Lynn Shepherd
Genre: Crime/Horror/Murder/Ethical Questions
Review: Lynn Shepherd has a knack for setting literary murder puzzles. Her previous book, Murder at Mansfield Park, is a murder mystery which re-imagines Austen’s original and places Mary Crawford as the novel’s heroine and the previously angelic Fanny Price as a scheming heiress. Murder at Mansfield Park featured Charles Maddox as the detective who unravels the mystery and so too does Shepherd’s new novel, Tom-All-Alone’s.
This time around, Shepherd uses Dickens’s Bleak House as the backdrop to her work. Tom-All-Alone’s is her response to the events and themes of what is widely regarded as Dickens’s masterpiece and features a number of characters from the original text – Edward Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket, Lady Dedlock and Dr Woodcourt – whether as central or peripheral figures. The book seeks to depict the grim underworld of Victorian London which Dickens could only hint at.
In this new murder mystery, the young detective Maddox is hired by the lawyer Tulkinghorn to undertake a seemingly simple task, but in doing so Maddox uncovers a scandalous and deadly secret that Tulkinghorn and his wealthy clients are desperate to conceal. Through his investigations, Maddox is plunged into a world of child prostitutes, murdered babies and the deeply unsavoury practices of high-ranking men.
Tom-All-Alone’s has a postmodern, knowing feel reminiscent of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, another novel set in the murky underbelly of Victorian London. Shepherd reveals plot details to her readers that even Maddox is not privy to and places us directly into the text alongside her: “Noon, Waterloo-bridge. From where we stand we can look up towards Whitehall and Westminster…” She speaks to her readers in an almost conversational manner (“And I can tell you…”) and at times seems to be literally leading us by the hand, such as when we are following a man through streets thick with fog: “We have a way to go yet and the day is darkening. We must find him soon, or risk losing him altogether.” She advises us to muffle our faces against the stench, placing us into the story just as she has placed her own characters into the world that Dickens created. This gives the book an immediate feel, despite it being set in 1850.
In Murder at Mansfield Park, Shepherd chose to write in the style of Austen, but no attempt to write in the style of Dickens has been made here. Because of this, the author’s own voice comes to the fore, giving the book an originality despite its use of another author’s creation. Imitations can become irritating, and it was perhaps wise of Shepherd to choose not to ape Dickens in this way.
Tom-All-Alone’s also draws on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, featuring a character from this work and exploring some of its most startling themes. Shepherd discovered that the time-scheme of Bleak House could be made to run parallel with the chronology of The Woman in White and sought to create a “space between” the two books, a new story of her own that could combine their themes. The writer John Fowles also makes a fleeting appearance, as does one of his characters from The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
This literary magpie-ism is a treat for book-lovers, a little nudge-and-a-wink here and there which delights fans of these other works without alienating those who haven’t read them yet. Indeed, it is possible to fully enjoy and understand Tom-All-Alone’s without having any prior knowledge of Bleak House, although those who have read Dickens’s work will get an added layer of appreciation for Shepherd’s ingenious use of the original material.
By placing her own detective into classic fiction, Shepherd does something which fans of Austen and Dickens will doubtless have strong reactions to. Tom-All-Alone’s could be regarded as a brave attempt to expand on an already great text and a fan’s tribute to a much-loved author, though some might see Shepherd’s work as literary vandalism. However it is regarded, the literary time-travel of Charles Maddox shows the modern-day author to be having a great deal of fun with her own creations while playing about with those of her favourite writers.
Whether you think of this sort of book as a scandalous trampling of consecrated ground or a witty homage, it’s an intelligent, gripping and beautifully written novel which sparkles with a bibliophilic glee that reminds us that literature should, above all else, be fun.
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