Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

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.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Milo’s Rambles, Crime Fiction Lover and Fleur Fisher in her World.

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10 thoughts on “Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

  1. A very well written review. Thanks for the extra info about the original characters from Bleak House. Having not read it myself it’s always interesting to see how people compare the two. I approached it from fresh and although I do plan to read Bleak House I haven’t had chance yet.

  2. Sarah – An excellent review and it does sound like a solid take on the original. I like your innovative way of marking Dickens’ bicentenary. You make an interesting point about whether or not it’s a good thing to know a lot about the original story when one reads a story based on something else. As you say, it can hamper the reader. At the same time, it does give one insight into the characters and so on. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that, which makes it all the more interesting of a question, for which thanks :-).

    • Thanks Margot. I’m not sure I would have read ‘Tom All-Alone’s if I didn’t know the book but I think it is a credit to the writer that she is able to please Dickens fans and those new to the original.

  3. An interesting choice of book, Sarah. I really enjoyed your review. I have read Bleak House a couple of times but (like you) I have problems with the Esther-Jarndyce plot, esp the way he builds her the house at the end, etc. I do like some of the other characters, though, particularly the Deadlocks. This was an early example of a crime novel, too, with Inspector Bucket. It is a good idea to make Tulkinghorne a character as he is so vivid, but I agree with you that the Esther/Hester etc plot sounds uninvolving, given the original. I did read a couple of “extensions to classics” many years ago (a couple of Pride and Predjudices, Gone wtih the Wind and Rebecca come to mind) but as a result swore I never would again.
    I think my favourite Dickens is Our Mutual Friend, though I do like Little Dorrit and (without the USA bits) Martin Chuzzelwit. But I like lots of his other books, too.

    • Thanks Maxine. I love ‘Our Mutual Friend’ too and the wonderful Boffins. But when I re-read ‘Bleak House’ I don’t want to leave the world of Victorian London. I have never read ‘Sketches by Boz’ all the way through and I don’t own a copy so I hope to read this at some point this year but only when i pick up a second hand edition somewhere.

  4. Pingback: The best of February’s reading. « crimepieces

  5. I liked this a little more than you, but I can see that it made a difference that i was less familiar with Bleak House.

  6. Pingback: Tom All Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd – Book Review

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