Towards the end of December I spotted a link on twitter to a competition run by the author of a book called Murder at Mansfield Park, not a book I heard of previously. I was in the process of reading Death Comes to Pemberley at the time, which is what alerted me to the competition, as it called for people to read the two books and write a review comparing them. The idea of reading and comparing two Austenesque mystery books appealed to me at once. I quickly downloaded Murder at Mansfield Park to my kindle, and upon finishing the P D James book got stuck in. It ended my reading for 2011 on something of a high –it was a thoroughly enjoyable read – and I wrote my little review and sent it off. A few weeks later I discovered I had won a copy of Lynn Shepherd’s new novel – I rarely win anything so was rather chuffed.
Tom-All-Alones is in fact published today (February 2nd 2012) although I received my copy a couple of weeks ago. The title refers to a cemetery in London, featured in Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’ – and which was apparently one possible title for Dickens’s tale. This novel is indeed a homage to Dickens and one of his greatest novels.
Some of Dickens characters reappear in this book – Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket and Lady Deadlock for instance – while other characters bear some resemblance to Dickens creations but have been re-shaped by Lynn Shepherd. In addition those who have read Murder at Mansfield Park will recognise the name Charles Maddox – although the Charles Maddox of Tom-All-Alone’s is the regency thief takers great nephew. The elder Charles Maddox is now a shuffling old man. His once sharp mind blighted by some disease (Alzheimer’s surely) which brings about long periods of cloudy incomprehension and confusion, followed by glimpses of his former brilliance as his mind comes back into focus.
Charles Maddox is hired by Tulkinghorn to uncover the author of some anonymous letters. Things quickly take a violent turn however, and Charles becomes embroiled in a brutal murder case, even being attacked himself – more than once - in his pursuit of the truth.
This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. All the sights, sounds and indeed smells of Victorian London practically rise up off the page. In this Lynn Shepherd pulls no punches –the descriptions are vivid and all too real, the horrifying realities that existed for certain sections of society at this time laid bare. As with ‘Bleak House’ itself we have an omniscient narrator – this time one speaking to the reader from a more modern time – acting in a way as a guide through the plot as well as through the confusion of London streets. This 2nd person narrative which is not continually present actually works really well. The majority of the story concerns Charles Maddox and his investigation – and alongside we have the story of Charles’s Uncle Maddox – who Charles moves back in with at the beginning of the novel – and a young black maid who comes to work at the house. Alongside this narrative – we have a first person narrative of Hester – ward of Mr Jarvis. Just as in ‘Bleak House’ these stories weave together eventually. If I am honest, at first, I found the short sections narrated by Hester less enjoyable – but only because they took me away from the thick of the action and the great characters of Charles Maddox his Uncle, Tulkinghorn and the stinking seething filthy streets that Charles must negotiate in his quest. However Hester’s story does become marvellously compelling towards the end of the novel – providing the reader with an amazing twist – that I didn’t see coming and quite literally made me gasp.
Tom-All-Alone’s however , is in no way a re-telling of Bleak House –it is good old fashioned, well written murder mystery – the story of ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ runs parallel to the story of Bleak House – and Wilkie Collins ‘Woman in White’ - and readers who have never read Dickens’s great novel can enjoy it as that. Those who have read ‘Bleak House’ and know Dickens and Collins’s work however will enjoy spotting the parallels and little references that make this novel such an excellent homage to the great man 200 years after his birth.
This is a massively readable page turner – I read it in great gulps and could hardly put it down. I think those who love historical murder mysteries and those who like their Dickens will each enjoy this novel – but those readers who like both of those things will be doubly delighted.