Book review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

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It’s the shocking story that Dickens would have liked to tell but, restrained by the powerful forces of his hard times, could only hint at.

This is London’s rotten underbelly laid bare ... corruption in the highest echelons of society, depravity so base that it must be hidden at all costs, filthy streets, child prostitution and slaughtered babies.

Inspired by Bleak House, Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, Tom-All-Alone’s is Lynn Shepherd’s glorious but grimly realistic pastiche novel which takes us deep within those 19th century city haunts which the celebrated novelist could only draw with a pen blunted by form and convention.

With no such constraints and an omniscient narrator who helps us see the past, present and future, 21st century readers can walk once again with the likes of ruthless lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn, wily Inspector Bucket of Scotland Yard and the mysterious Lady Dedlock, and re-imagine their lives and times.

It’s a brave author who takes up the reins of a Dickens novel, throws in some characters from Wilkie Collins’ best-seller, The Woman in White, and uses the pioneering studies of Victorian social philanthropist Henry Mayhew to recreate London’s stinking, rat-infested streets.

This is Shepherd’s second foray into a murder mystery set amidst a world familiar to readers of the literary classics. Her first book, Murder at Mansfield Park, took some entertaining liberties with Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines, and now Dickens take centre stage.

The result is an intelligent and gripping post-modern crime novel. Beautifully written and cleverly plotted, it plunders the best of Dickens without trying to ape his genius, maintains a sense of artful playfulness amidst its gross themes and refuses to be sidetracked by fears of literary vandalism.

Tom-All-Alone’s is the notorious disease-ridden slum described in Bleak House, as well as one of the titles Dickens originally considered for the novel.

The pivotal discovery of dead babies in the slum’s long-deserted graveyard sets the tone for Shepherd’s crime puzzle which runs parallel to the chronology of Bleak House and The Woman in White but produces a thrilling whodunit combining motifs from both.

At his elegant chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the formidable lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn has powerful clients to protect, and a deadly secret to hide.

But that secret is now under threat from an unseen adversary, one who must be tracked down at all costs before it’s too late.

So who better for such a task than young Charles Maddox whose great uncle of the same name was the famous ‘thief-taker’ involved many years ago in the murder mystery at Mansfield Park?

Young Charles has a keen sense of injustice and was ejected from the Detective branch of the London police force for daring to challenge the deductions of a higher ranking officer when a man’s life was in the balance.

He is now working as a private detective so when Tulkinghorn offers a handsome price for the apparently simple job of tracking down a malevolent letter writer, Charles is unable to resist the challenge.

But he soon discovers that Tulkinghorn’s client, the merchant banker Sir Julius Cremorne, has a shadowy life that he and his lawyer will do anything to conceal.

Nothing is what it seems and if Maddox delves deeper into the affair than the task demands, Tulkinghorn will make it his business to ensure that the detective ‘does not live to profit by it.’

But young Charles is both brave and obstinate, and nothing and nobody will deter him from seeking out the truth...

Despite its ‘borrowed’ themes, Shepherd’s book brims with originality and style – cameo appearances from literary characters and their creators, piquant vignettes of Victorian life and an atmosphere redolent of Dickens’ oppressive underworld make Tom-All-Alone’s a rare and witty pleasure for those familiar with the classics, and a thrilling page-turner for the uninitiated.

Ever the consummate entertainer, Dickens would surely have been amused and flattered!

(Corsair, hardback, £12.99)