Tom All Alone's is Lynn Shepherd's second novel, and just like her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, this is also based on the work of another writer. Her new book is based on Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which seems like a clever choice as 2012 is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens' birth. I read her first book as an attempt to try reading something outside what I normally read. With Tom All Alone's I can't really make that claim, I do really like Victorian who dunnits. Thank you Corsair for providing me with a review copy of Tom All Alone's.
Charles Maddox is the nephew of the man with the same name we met in Murder at Mansfield Park. His uncle is still alive, but has now reached his winter years. The old man is not himself anymore, and Charles Maddox barely recognises his relative, who now only has brief moments of clarity. After being dismissed from the police, the younger Charles Maddox is trying to walk in the footsteps of his great uncle, and is working as a private detective. So far he only has one case, one which he is not even sure is solvable. His client is a father who many years ago drove his daughter out of the house for becoming pregnant, but on his wife's deathbed he promised to find their daughter and her child. Charles Maddox has already interviewed the staff at the orphanage where the young woman lived, and it looks like she died there. It's a great relief when he is tasked by one of London's greatest lawyers, Tulkinghorn, to help a client of his. The client, who wishes to remain anonymous, has received threatening letter, and wants to know who sent them. Grateful as he is, Charles Maddox cannot help feeling something is amiss, but he needs the money and the boost to his reputation. Well, first he has to find whoever sent that letter. Then, he can find out what his client is hiding from him.
There is another point of view in Tom All Alone's, one of a young girl. A young girl recalls what happened to hear from early childhood, to becoming a young woman. Her parents died, and she was sent off to live with a guardian. She was ever so grateful, and promised herself to always be good, and to love her guardian. Her story starts out sad, but then she seems so happy with her guardian and the other girls living in the big house.
Lynn Shepherd paints such a beautiful image of an adorable, selfless, and fragile girl filled with love and life. I can't help but wishing her happiness, and that's whats so unnerving about her story. Something is wrong, horribly wrong. It's subtle, so we don't know what is. Not knowing makes me try and fill out the blanks myself and pulls me into the story in an effective manner.
One thing I like about Victorian fiction is the contrasts you encounter. Britain is an empire at this time, with interests reaching all corners of the world. There is so much wealth, yet also so much poverty and disease. I can't help it, but I find it funny how the rich still cannot escape the filthy streets. Just like in Murder at Mansfield Park Lynn Shepherd brings the setting into life with her writing. Where Murder at Mansfield Park was a bright and happy, Tom All Alone's is much darker, and frankly, horrendous at times.
Charles Maddox the younger is a confident man, who is very proud of his abilities of perception and deduction. He quite quickly finds out the importance of experience, not everything can be taught. I'm glad he is not another Sherlock Holmes clone, even though there are certain similarities, at least Lynn Shepherds character is capable of mistakes. His quest for truth will take him from face down in filth, to a murder scene worse than any abattoir.
In Tom All Alone's Lynn Shepherd has gone the extra mile with the plot. It's cleverly layered, with sub plots and two narratives. Curiosity is a great motivator for turning the pages, and I was in the dark, but the light at the end of the tunnel was in front of me. What would Charles Maddox do next? Our detective is very much in the driving seat, always proactive instead of reactive. The author never resorts to moving the plot forward with dirty tricks, and the result is a smoothly flowing story.
Tom All Alone's is a dark and compelling who dunnit, with a well balanced protagonist. My immediate thought after reading it was, what will Lynn Shepherd do next? Once again she delivers, and I look forward to her next book. Tom All Alone's is worthy of a place in the bookcase of a crime fiction fan, and especially a fan of historical crime novels.
Tom All Alone's weighs in at 336 pages and is published by Corsair.