This first appeared in the Scotsman books section Saturday 3rd March 2012
Lynn Shepherd has a knack for setting literary murder puzzles. Her previous book, Murder at Mansfield Park, re-imagined Austen’s original, elevating minx-like Mary Crawford to the position of the novel’s heroine and painting the previously angelic Fanny Price as a scheming heiress. The jaunty mystery featured Charles Maddox as a young detective who unravels the central 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 – 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 respectable gent Dickens could only hint at.
In this new murder mystery, Maddox is hired by the lawyer Tulkinghorn to undertake a seemingly simple task, but in doing so 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 a conversational manner (“And I can tell you…”) and leads us by the hand as we follow 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 first created, giving the book an immediate feel, despite its nineteenth-century setting.
This literary magpie-ism is a treat for book-lovers, a little nudge-and-a-wink here and there which will delights Dickens fans without alienating those who’ve never read his work. 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 the original will get an added layer of appreciation for Shepherd’s ingenious use of the source material.
By placing her own detective into a classic work of 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, or simply an ardent fan’s tribute to a much-loved author. Some might see Shepherd’s work as an impudent work of literary vandalism. But whether you think of this sort of book as a scandalous trampling of consecrated ground or a witty homage, it’s an intelligent and gripping novel which sparkles with a bibliophilic glee that reminds us that literature should, above all else, be fun.