Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 26 March 2012

Tom-All-Alone's - Lynn Shepherd

'These streets are no cause for comedy, and know no tones but grim and grey.'

It is 1850, and we are taken to the heart of Dickens' London, but it's a grim, dark, foul area that we are visiting, which is conjured up clearly for us, as we are warned when we start upon our journey: 'Muffle your face, if you can, against the stink of human and animal filth, and try not to look too closely at what it is that's caking your boots, and sucking at your tread.' 

Charles Maddox worked in the Detective, as the police are referred to here. He is now working alone as an investigator, but maintaining the contacts he knew. Charles' great-uncle was his mentor and inspiration with his early detective work, but is sadly now slowly succumbing to illness, having lucid moments when he is the man Charles has always known him to be, making keen, sharp observations about investigations, but then becoming almost someone else entirely as he is seized by this illness, which we would now recognise as dementia. 'Maddox's mood can plummet and soar as quickly and as violently as his command of reason.'...'The terror of knowing how much he no longer knows, or how black the blank spaces are becoming.'

The 'widely feared' lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, has significant clients whose private interests he takes care of and keeps concealed, and he 'is celebrated among his associates for his inscrutability.' He engages Charles in undertaking an investigation on behalf of one of his clients, but Charles is aware of the lawyer's reputation, and soon realises that all is not what it seems. Another strand of separate narrative is slotted in amongst the other chapters, and provided by an orphan named Hester, recounting to us in the first-person her happy childhood and subsequent removal after her mother's death to a new home, The Solitary House, under her new guardian.

This is a beautifully written story, such vividly evoked sights, smells and sounds of Victorian London, so atmospheric, such fascinating characters, and a clever murder mystery plot to keep us hooked. The author cleverly weaves separate strands of the story together and draws the reader in, wondering how everything may or may not be linked together, making you reluctant to put the book down for long; in fact, I think this novel rewards the reader who devours it in as few sittings as possible. 

The reference to the reader by the narrator, including us in their comments and observations by the use of 'we' and 'us', pulls us tightly in to the story, making us a companion walking through those very streets: 'So let us explore a little, while we wait for Charles. We could do with him now,...' I loved the writing style and use of language. This description made me smile: 'In these shops, third-hand counts as spanking new and most of the articles are so made-do and mended that it's hard to make out what they might once have been.' I think the author's passion and interest in this period is evident.

The author draws on the setting, themes and characters of Dickens' novel Bleak House to construct this novel. I haven't read that novel, and very much enjoyed this book without having the benefit of reading Bleak House, but I would very much like to read it in future. It would surely be of added interest and pleasure to anyone who has read it, and certainly add another dimension to your reading of Tom-All-Alone's.

This (the hardback) is a gorgeous edition too, and was published in the month of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Thank you very much to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel to read and give an honest review.

Published by Corsair on 2 February 2012 - available now in hardback and e-book editions.

You can find out more about the author on her website here and also follow her on twitter @Lynn_Shepherd


  1. I have been lusting after this for quite a while now, Lindsay! Sounds like my lusting is justified then... ;-) I have Murder in Mansfield Park by the same author TBR and must acquire this one very soon.

    1. I have Murder at Mansfield Park too for Kindle and looking forward to it after reading and enjoying this one very much.

  2. I like Dickens and do know the story of bleak House, I do not really like this idea of writing a novel around the settings themes and characters of the original.


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