2012 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. His writings epitomised the Victorian era depicting the grinding poverty of urban life, creating a cast of unforgettable charcters and inventing vocabulary that has now become commonplace in the English language. Many book reviewers have been using the bicentenary to read or re-read Dickens’ books and it has been wonderful to read bloggers’ take on classics such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations.
Bleak House is my absolute favourite Dickens novel and it’s a book I re-read every couple of years or so. It’s not without its faults. I find the John Jarndyce/Esther Summerson relationship slightly odd in these modern times but I think the tragedy of the Lady Deadlock situation and the wonderful creations of the dry lawyer Tulkinghorn, the sly and fickle Guppy and the slovenly philanthropist Mrs Jellyby a delight to return to time and time again. I noticed that a crime novel based on Bleak House had been published and although I rarely, with the exception of PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, read books based on the classics I decided that this would be my contribution to the 2012 bicentenary.
The plot of Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s centres around a former Metropolitan police officer turned private detective, Charles Maddox, who is hired by the powerful lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn to find the anonymous letter writer who is blackmailing one of his clients. Maddox soon realises that there is more to the job than Tulkinghorn is willing to reveal and is drawn into a conspiracy where his life is put at risk. In a parallel plot, the orphaned Hester is placed with her guardian and after becoming ill struggles to distinguish reality from a shadowy dream world.
I’m not sure that being so familiar with Bleak House was a help or a hindrance when it came to this book. About half way through I nearly gave up on this book but in fact the resolution of the plot was a clever take on the original and I was glad to have persevered. The best bits of the book were the Tulkinghorn/Maddox relationship. With Tulkinghorn, of course, Shepherd had a ready-made Dickensian villain and she carries his malevolence through to the new book very well. Her descriptions of the slum of Tom-All-Alone’s draw on Dickens’ writings but she has obviously done plenty of research herself and I liked the way small vignettes of London slum life were put into the narrative.
The plot strand that I found difficult to warm to was the Hester/Mr Jarvis relationship. To begin with I found it very confusing indeed as they so closely mirrored characters from the original book. There was Hester (Esther), Clara (Ada Clare) and Mr Jarvis (John Jarndyce) and a woman who kept birds, Mrs Flint (Miss Flite). Every time I got to these passages it seemed that Shepherd was pinching characters from Bleak House giving them near names and episodes similar to the original text. It seemed a cop-out but the resolution of the mystery reveals a purpose in this and I found it quite a clever plot device by the end.
I wasn’t completely won over by the book but I do think I was hampered by my knowledge of the original. However, the crime aspect was interesting and well done but possibly not to everyone’s taste. I suspect the subject matter was something that Dickens was well aware of but could only hint at in his writings at the time.