Tom All Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

Tom All Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

London, 1850. Fog in the air and filth in the streets, from the rat-infested graveyard of Tom-All-Alone’s to the elegant chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the formidable lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn has powerful clients to protect, and a deadly secret to hide. Only that secret is now under threat from a shadowy and unseen adversary – an adversary who must be tracked down at all costs, before it’s too late. Who better for such a task than young Charles Maddox? Unfairly dismissed from the police force, Charles is struggling to establish himself as a private detective. Only business is slow and his one case a dead end, so when Tulkinghorn offers a handsome price for an apparently simple job Charles is unable to resist. But as he soon discovers, nothing here is what it seems.

An assignment that starts with anonymous letters leads soon to a brutal murder, as the investigation lures Charles ever deeper into the terrible darkness Tulkinghorn will stop at nothing to conceal. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, Tom-All-Alone’s is a new and gripping Victorian murder mystery which immerses the reader in a grim London underworld that Dickens could only hint at – a world in which girls as young as ten work the night as prostitutes, unwanted babies are ruthlessly disposed of, and those who threaten the rank and reputations of great men are eliminated at once, and without remorse.

There aren’t many authors today who will happily take on Jane Austen, there are even fewer around who will also take on the great Charles Dickens. Who in their right mind – and you have to question their sanity – would take a classic Austen book and add a murder giving her own unique spin on Mansfield Park? In 2010 Shepherd did just that with her version – Murder at Mansfield Park – and although my introduction to Austen’s language and style it unexpectedly ended up in my top 15 list of 2010. A year down the line and Lynn’s second book – Tom All Alone’s – sees the author change pace and move into the realms of Dickensian London, further giving voice to her very own creation – thief taker Maddox – basing the novel on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

Maddox has aged considerably since we left him in Murder at Mansfield Park and is now ailing, showing signs of madness, dementia and irritability and although not recognised for another 50 years it’s a disease we know today as Alzheimer’s disease. With Maddox confined to his house we have a new protagonist in our midst, his nephew young Charles Maddox. Maddox does have the odd moment of lucidity and his knowledge and wisdom aids Charles Maddox in this his latest case. Shepherd treats his illness with a wonderful degree of sensitivity and insight giving the disease a refreshing approach.

Solitary House

Solitary House

The narrative is sumptuous and bleak [did I really say that?] with an incredibly descriptive prose to envy; this is one book you’ll wish you’d written. Make no bones about it, Tom All Alone’s is a dark literary crime thriller and leaves very little to the imagination. Along the way Shepherd introduces the reader to rat infested streets, dog and rat fights in the pubs, homeless urchins, ladies – and I use the term loosely – of the night and lodging houses that sport blackened walls encrusted with cockroaches. The depravity of mid-19th century London jumps from the pages and it effortlessly transported this reader to a world where class distinction is prevalent.

Unlike Murder at Mansfield Park I found a natural rhythm to Tom All Alone’s within a few pages, it was clear to me, comparing both titles, that what we have here is Lynn’s true voice. It felt more natural, less structured and certainly not subject to the constraints of Austen’s old style English. Reading Tom All Alone’s I felt a distinct ease, a comfort and warmth I hadn’t expected despite the grim subject of murder and prostitution we find within.

Characterisation is impressive and assured and together with her main protagonists – Maddox and Tulkinghorn – one little girl caught my imagination. Sarah, a 12 year old girl, and prostitute, is only in the book for a few pages but there’s something about her that simply caught my eye. When you realise that 12 year old girls working the streets just to make a paltry living – and survive – was the norm for Dickensian London, you begin to have serious doubts about the era. Sarah has an attitude to envy, a colourful and cheeky personality and is a girl who knows how to look after herself.

Cripplegate – Christ no! Ave you seen the place? Tried it out when I first came to Lunnon. Terrible bloody dump. But I ain’t goin’ back to McCarthy’s neither. Some ‘orrible old tooler wanted some for free, and then kicked off when I told ‘im he could pay up or ‘ook it. And then I was just settin’ meself up for the night on that bench when some bastard nicked me coat. Christ it was cold. 

Charles Maddox is a wonderful and creative invention, full of determination, he’s fallible, obstinate, has an eye for the ladies and is most definitely his own man –although his Uncle always has something to say about that. Forced to move in with his uncle because of his illness it shows a caring side to the former detective endearing himself to the reader. Although an intelligent man he finds himself in predicaments he could quite easily have avoided but he somehow manages to fight his way out and becomes stronger for it. Development is key to any book and as with her previous book Shepherd certainly knows what works and what doesn’t allowing her characters to grow as the story unfolds.

Upon finishing Tom All Alone’s I began to wonder what Bleak House – the original – was like and, eager to discover the nuances between the two books, I promptly downloaded the book to read in a year that marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, I guess as an author you can’t ask for much more than introduce a reader to the classics.

Please Sir, I want some more. You want more boy? More? – To be honest yes I do! I could’ve quite happily sat and read more; I didn’t want the book to end but end it did and I now long for Shepherd’s third book. Magnificently opulent, delivered with aplomb, Dickens would have approved.

Other reviews available at Crime Pieces

Published by Corsair Tom All Alone’s is available in Hardback & Kindle

Published by Random House in America, Solitary House is available in Hardback format.

336 Pages  – ISBN-10: 1780331665 – ISBN-13: 978-1780331669


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5 Responses to “Tom All Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd – Book Review”

  1. Nikki-ann says:

    Sounds brilliant! Can I read this having not read the first book?

  2. S J Bolton says:

    Great review Miles, I’m a huge Dickens fan (Bleak House being my favourite) and haven’t come across Lynn Shepherd before. I’ll definitely look her up now. If she’s captured Victorian London in the way Dickens did, she must be talented indeed.

  3. This sounds great Miles. I have been seeing it pop up here and there on blogs and thinking it might be my sorta book. Yours and DogEarDiscs reviews have sold it.

    Seems I don’t need to have read the first in this series or Bleak House to enjoy it, so thats a good thing and I do love all things Victorian.

  4. […] reviews of the book can be found at Milo’s Rambles, Crime Fiction Lover and Fleur Fisher in her World. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the […]

  5. Sarah says:

    Great review. I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as you. I have linked to your post in my review if that’s OK. It’s nice to get some different perspectives.

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