Come close, lean in, I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s a little scandalous.
I’m not very keen on Dickens.
There, I’ve said it. The Christmas Books aside, he just leaves me cold. I realise the fault is mine, I’ve just never managed to read one all the way through. A good friend of mine has read them all, more than once probably. I only mention this because I may be about to change my mind and once more approach the big D. If I do it will be down to Lynn Shepherd and her wonderful novel Tom-All-Alone’s. Set in 1850 in the murky and squalid places Victorian London did so well, it takes Bleak House as its inspiration.
The prologue sets the scene vividly. It is a dark November day in London, so miserable ‘you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported, on a sudden, to a circle of hell even the devil has given up for lost.’ Streets that ‘know no tones but grim and grey’ make up the city ‘as riddled with life as a corpse with maggots.’ This is no sweet tale. The atmosphere becomes evermore creepy and claustrophobic as our hero, Charles Maddox, stomps towards his destiny.
Maddox is the great-nephew and namesake of a renowned detective, who he has modelled his professional life upon. Recently pushed out of the police force for questioning methods and evidence he now scrapes by as a private investigator. We meet him in his small, untidy room as he tries to attend to some business. An omniscient invisible witness guides us through the novel, talking directly to the reader, setting the scene and leading us through the tangled lives and motivations of the characters. I loved this style, and could hear the voice in my head (in a good way, I hasten to add). The quiet scene is disturbed by a message for Maddox; he is alerted to a discovery that may help with the case he is working on.
We learn a lot about the type of man Maddox is in these initial scenes. He is rather careless of his appearance; he’s devoted to a large black cat that has the upper hand in the relationship. He has an unusual physical understanding of his surroundings, as he walks a map is imprinted on his mind allowing him to travel through London’s foggy streets with assurance. He doesn’t shirk the more unpleasant duties of his work. He is called to a graveyard where the bodies of several newborn babies have been buried in makeshift graves. The description of the find is a little bit shocking and very tragic. The police are ready to shrug it away as just another case of casual infanticide, too common to be of any real note. Maddox however sees something more, he is able to read the scene and draw more nuanced conclusions.
It is another case that comes to dominate his time though. The odious lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn has a case of blackmail for Maddox to look into. Tulkinghorn works for the rich and successful, all of whom are surrounded by a tang of corruption. Maddox is drawn into some very unsavoury business that becomes increasingly dangerous. As he picks his way through a quagmire of deceit and treachery another narrative is occasionally interspersed. This is Hester’s story, an orphan taken in by a charitable gentleman. From the start I suspected there was something off about her version of events, but it is not until the two strands of the story start to collide that the full horror is revealed.
I think Tom-All-Alone’s is a wonderfully evocative and sinister tale. I loved the style and was compelled by the story. The descriptions bring the city to life, sights and sounds and smells and all. Not being familiar with Bleak House means I am not sure how many extra layers I missed, but it stands as a mighty good period detective piece on its own. I may just work up the courage to give Lynn Shepherd’s source material another go.