Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
26th Jan 2012
The novel centres on a shadowy conspiracy, masterminded by Dickens’s lawyer, Tulkinghorne, and a young detective’s attempts to solve it. The tone is playful and engaging in the main, but Shepherd is not afraid to detail the seedy side of Victorian London. This is evident from the novel’s opening, which jumps from a cosy portrait of a Sherlock Holmes-style amateur detective, living in rented rooms with his wallcharts and his wilful cat, to a scene of murdered babies and desperate urban poverty in Whitechapel.
The narrative bounces along, propelled on its course by blackmail, missing children, bawdy wenches and chance encounters with bee-keepers, but there is a strange discrepancy in the authorial voice. Shepherd uses period language, but also employs modern references, throwing up some strange images amongst the Victoriana. She also plays fast and loose with the timeline; whilst the action is purportedly set in 1850, events from later in Victoria’s reign are included within the story, including one set piece which is directly modelled on the murder of Mary Kelly by Jack the Ripper 38 years later, down to the burnt spout of a kettle. Eager students of the classic murder will also find references to the Ratcliffe Highway killings, among many more. The overall effect is an enjoyable panorama of East End life.
Beyond the missing children and the inscrutable lawyer’s manoeuvrings, Tom All-Alone’s is also the story of a young man trying to grow into his illustrious uncle’s shoes, a mute black maid, a loyal but ageing manservant and a mysterious second narrator (Hester), to mention but a few. Shepherd addresses social issues around child-prostitution, motherhood and the position of women in Victorian society, without appearing preachy. This subtext in the novel builds to a genuinely surprising and upsetting finale, as the great lawyer’s deceptions and betrayals are unmasked.
In many ways, Tom-All-Alone’s is reminiscent of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May novels, in which far-fetched plots are of secondary importance behind witty dialogue, excellent characterisation and amusing authorial digressions. For me, this is a far more entertaining way of writing crime, and a relief from the endless stream of disillusioned Scando-crime fighters filling the booksellers’ shelves.
Recommended for: Anyone who likes Dickens adaptations, but finds the novels irritatingly verbose; fans of Wilkie Collins looking for a lighter read; or anyone with an interest in Victorian London and a penchant for solving mysteries.
Other recommended reading: For a good introduction to the seedy side of Victorian London, try Judith Flanders‘s The Invention of Murder, recently released in paperback. Also on a true crime bent, but with plenty of anecdotes and personal interest, try Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun.
Guest post by The Workshy Fop