Tom-All-Alone’s is a What if? set in the world of Bleak House. What if Charles Maddox, who has been unfairly dismissed from the Metropolitan Police, is set the task of finding out the identity of the person behind some anonymous but threatening letters by the mysterious lawyer Edward Tulkington?
Well if he was he’d find out that there was more to the letters and more mysterious connections going on than he first would have thought.
I’ve not read Bleak House so I was coming in blind with no preconceived ideas of what to expect, so for me it needed to stand on its own and it does, but not without leaving you wanting to know more and not without a period of adjustment at the start, which if I’d known the style of Bleak House might have been avoided.
But let’s start with what Tom-All-Alone’s is or at least what it isn’t. I was expecting a detective novel, maybe in the style of Holmes, that would have a modern feel in a period story. It does have detection in it but mostly it’s a London novel set in the mid 1800s that shows you the squalid bits that Dicken’s couldn’t (I got this from the author so I’m not going to argue as it does have a lot filth).
Writing a parallel story to a true classic is a big deal and if it was me I’d be putting on those cotton gloves you see people wearing to handle antiques but Shepherd knows her material and is a bit more robust. And I think because of her confidence she not only can get stuck in but can do so without worrying that she may damage the original.
Which brings me nicely to the style and the oddities of it, at least if don’t know the blueprint you may think it’s odd. Firstly the narration, the narrator has a habit of talking directly to the reader, especially foreshadowing future events. At first this is a little odd as it takes you away from being in with the characters but then you realise that it might be a little too strongly signalling in places but in others the modern reader is being directed and informed without the need for awkward character moments. Secondly is the character of Hester, she gets her own thread told in the first person, which together with the modernism in the third person narration at first felt jarring.
But this is where faith comes in. The need to see through Hester’s eyes is compelling. You don’t get the impact of the revealing ending without seeing the world through Hester’s eyes. Shepherd is following the mould set by Dickens but using that to shape an impression that ultimately is going to get shattered. Not all narrators are reliable you see. And putting the third person narrator at odds with the first ‘pure’ vision is a device that pays off.
Shepherd is good at building texture and flavour into her characters. When she introduces Inspector Bucket you already see him in a certain way but his actions reveal a different side to the one that has been sold before. I think that’s quite a skill especially as I really ending up liking but not entirely trusting him.
There are sweet moments too. When Charles Maddox moves in with his great-uncle also called confusingly Charles Maddox, we see a caring side to our Charles. But he is also provided with a much-needed mentor, who again changes our view of things.
It’s a modern novel in the sense that all these twists and turns are well handled. Nothing is frustrating and when the cover comes off at the end nothing is ambiguous. I’d definitely say it’s model novel in the confines of an older one.
After a bit of readjustment when the narration becomes ‘normal’ Shepherd’s skill at atmosphere and characterisation kick in. It’s a novel that takes you in the dirtier side of Victorian London. It also shows you what people of privilege do to keep their dirty secrets. It’s also a brave novel to use a classic as its model but then Lynn delves into it and gets her hands dirty.
Part of me worries about the character of Tulkington. It’s not that I mistrust Shepherd’s interpretation but until I’ve read Bleak House I won’t know if I’d see him quite as she does.
But I’m taking Tom-All-Alone’s too seriously if I let that spoil what was a great game of deception in some way or another by most of the characters, though not our hero, Charles Maddox.
Overall, Tom-All-Alone’s is an atmospheric, twisting novel, which leads you to a reveal you’d not have expected when you started following Charles Maddox on his quest to find out who wrote those threatening notes.
Tom-All-Alone’s is this month’s book club choice on The Readers podcast. You can hear Simon and I discuss the book with the author as well as hear more of our thoughts by clicking on this link.