Not that I’m a Dickens expert by any means, but Bleak House is my favourite by him. As this magnificent piece shows, I share that sentiment with Lynn Shepherd. Now as I was awandering through ye olde Dickensian London a few weeks back, Shepherd’s second novel hit the shelves and heralded the end of my 2012 TBR dare. I wasn’t going to miss reading this homage to Dickens and his masterpiece while actually in situ.
I’ll let the author introduce it.
Tom-All-Alone’s sounds like an extraordinary read and it is. The details of the crimes at its heart are told in the graphic (and sometimes gory) detail expected by a 21st century audience whilst being enveloped in the time, atmosphere and stylistic techniques of Bleak House. So, for example, the London fog eddies and swirls its way through the pages after making its first appearance in only the 2nd sentence. The structure of the original is retained with its two narrators, the first person narrative of Esther Summerson and that omniscient third with its eye that spans the macrocosmic before zooming right in to the microcosmic. Shepherd’s impersonations are true to their Dickensian originals. Goody-two-shoes Esther annoyed me in Bleak House, and she’s just as cloying here, but because Shepherd is not restricted by 19th century convention, an all together more sinister reading of what is happening between the lines becomes possible. As for the omniscience of that unknown third-person narrator, there is no getting away from it. The effect is claustrophobic.
The cast of characters is a mix of old and new. By making the events of Tom-All-Alone’s run in parallel to those of Bleak House, Shepherd can be selective as to who populates her pages. Of course, she had to retain the villain, Tulkinghorn, and the great Inspector Bucket. But, much to my chagrin, Lady Dedlock appears only as a cameo and Lord Dedlock (my favourite character in the original) not at all. Her own characters jump off the pages much as a Dickensian invention would. Charles Maddox, a fledgling private investigator, is impetuous, headstrong and
stubborn tenacious. The depiction of the debilitating illness of his great-uncle and mentor, which remains unnamed as it would have been back then, shows just what a puzzle Alzheimer’s was in those times.
Shepherd throws in other neat tricks and flicks for good measure such as a hypothesis on Jack the Ripper’s early career. I like the idea that Charles Maddox’s great-uncle, also named Charles Maddox, was the investigator in her first novel Murder at Mansfield Park. Taking that as a clue to possible future offerings, Charles Maddox III should appear in a rewrite of a British classic from the 1890’s. (See footnote.) Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what it might be?
(Mansfield Park published 1812-1814, Bleak House published 1852-1853, ??? published ca 1892)