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on 20 September 2012
I love the idea of Lynn Shepherd's Tom-All-Alone's which is based on Charles Dickens' Bleak House. It does help to know the Dickens original and that adds extra nuances to the book - including understanding who the murderer is - but the new characters are very strong and their stories add much to the book. It's also interesting seeing Dickens' Inspector Bucket from a different angle. I thought Shepherd's Charles Maddox, a former police officer, now private detective, was a great character and it will be interesting to see him in future books.

There is much to recommend this book and I just wish the frequent comparisons to the more modern world, including the First World War in the 1850s-set book's first paragraph, had been omitted as they undermine the book, forcing the reader out of Victorian London and into more modern times or even the present world which makes for uncomfortable reading - and is the reason this, for me, is a 3* book.

But the writing and plotting is excellent. I recommend reading it - then reading Dickens' Bleak House.
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VINE VOICEon 26 March 2012
It is 1850, and we are taken to the heart of Dickens' London, but it's a grim, dark, foul area that we are visiting, which is conjured up clearly for us, as we are warned when we start upon our journey: 'Muffle your face, if you can, against the stink of human and animal filth, and try not to look too closely at what it is that's caking your boots, and sucking at your tread.'

Charles Maddox worked in the Detective, as the police are referred to here. He is now working alone as an investigator, but maintaining the contacts he knew. Charles' great-uncle was his mentor and inspiration with his early detective work, but is sadly now slowly succumbing to illness, having lucid moments when he is the man Charles has always known him to be, making keen, sharp observations about investigations, but then becoming almost someone else entirely as he is seized by this illness, which we would now recognise as dementia. 'Maddox's mood can plummet and soar as quickly and as violently as his command of reason.'...'The terror of knowing how much he no longer knows, or how black the blank spaces are becoming.'

The 'widely feared' lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, has significant clients whose private interests he takes care of and keeps concealed, and he 'is celebrated among his associates for his inscrutability.' He engages Charles in undertaking an investigation on behalf of one of his clients, but Charles is aware of the lawyer's reputation, and soon realises that all is not what it seems. Another strand of separate narrative is slotted in amongst the other chapters, and provided by an orphan named Hester, recounting to us in the first-person her happy childhood and subsequent removal after her mother's death to a new home, The Solitary House, under her new guardian.

This is a beautifully written story, such vividly evoked sights, smells and sounds of Victorian London, so atmospheric, such fascinating characters, and a clever murder mystery plot to keep us hooked. The author cleverly weaves separate strands of the story together and draws the reader in, wondering how everything may or may not be linked together, making you reluctant to put the book down for long; in fact, I think this novel rewards the reader who devours it in as few sittings as possible.

The reference to the reader by the narrator, including us in their comments and observations by the use of 'we' and 'us', pulls us tightly in to the story, making us a companion walking through those very streets: 'So let us explore a little, while we wait for Charles. We could do with him now,...' I loved the writing style and use of language. This description made me smile: 'In these shops, third-hand counts as spanking new and most of the articles are so made-do and mended that it's hard to make out what they might once have been.' I think the author's passion and interest in this period is evident.

The author draws on the setting, themes and characters of Dickens' novel Bleak House to construct this novel. I haven't read that novel, and very much enjoyed this book without having the benefit of reading Bleak House, but I would very much like to read it in future. It would surely be of added interest and pleasure to anyone who has read it, and certainly add another dimension to your reading of Tom-All-Alone's.

This (the hardback) is a gorgeous edition too, and was published in the month of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
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on 27 June 2012
Tom-All-Alone's is both clever and ambitious, with a compelling story, great characters and a vividly realised 1850s London setting. It's the sort of book that would repay re-reading, possibly several times. It's also a better book then the author's previous novel, Murder at Mansfield Park. Yet while I happily gave that book 5 stars, Tom-All-Alone's just misses that mark because of its use of an omniscient modern narrator. While this is a playful and, again, clever conceit, I admired it without being able to forget about it, and it did pull me out of the story a couple of times.

There's a lot going on in this book. When we first meet hard up private detective Charles Maddox, he has recently left the Metropolitan detective force under a cloud. He is hunting a client's missing daughter with grim determination and little expectation of success. Then the powerful lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn hires Maddox to discover who is harassing a client with threatening letters. Thanks to the omniscient narrator, we learn straightaway that this deceptively simple job hides a sinister secret, one that will test Maddox's detective skills - and his tenacity - to the full.

There are several subplots, but the main one of these is narrated by a young woman called Hester, detailing her life in a place called Solitary House. These passages are so dreamy and innocent that they inspired an instant sense of creepiness, especially in contrast with the more action packed events of Maddox's story. Of course, these narratives do finally intersect in a suspenseful climactic scene that had me racing to finish it. I see some other reviewers here have criticised the plotting, but this seems a laughable charge to me, as Shepherd's plotting is both detailed and totally engrossing.

Often, when historical novels try too hard to pack in the colourful background stuff, it can overpower the story. Not so here. Maddox junior and Maddox senior are both flesh and blood characters you'd like to spend time with. The scenes between them are a joy, even while heart wrenching. There are also many stand out scenes, as well as some cracking twists. The murder of one character in particular was timed perfectly yet took me completely by surprise. That's brilliant writing, with only the narrative voice providing the occasional duff note.

Just as with Murder at Mansfield Park, I couldn't stop reading this novel, even at the expense of my beauty sleep. I can't wait for the next one.
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VINE VOICEon 4 January 2016
Powerful spin off novel from Dickens's Bleak House. This is very well written and shows a close eye for the minutiae of Victorian life, especially the seamy aspects. This book provides in effect a potential alternative interpretation of some of the events and characters in Dickens's classic novel, an interpretation which concerns themes of child abuse and exploitation and graphic Ripper-style killings, which Dickens would not have been able to write for publication. There are also references to Wilkie Collins's Woman in White, which I have read but with the details of which I am rather less familiar. While I enjoyed the writing, it does leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of some of these themes and slightly besmirches my view of Bleak House itself - but it is a fascinating and well-executed literary exercise.
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on 6 January 2014
This excellent historical whodunnit is based on the characters and story of Charles Dickens', Bleak House. It does in fact "stand all alone" in that a knowledge of Bleak House is not necessary to enjoy it. However I took the trouble to read Bleak House before embarking on it. I was well rewarded in that the twist in the plot at the end of the book cannot be fully appreciated without being acquainted with Dickens' version of the character Hester. I would advise if you don't have the time or inclination to read Bleak House in its entirety then at least read a synopsis.

The plot centres on the young private detective Charles Maddox, recently dismissed from the police force. He is working on two cases one involving a missing girl and a second with tracing the sender of threatening letters. All is not as it seems and this results in more than one murder. He also crosses the path of one his previous colleagues Inspector Bucket. At times Maddox's inexperience impedes his solving of the cases but he emerges victorious. The story evokes well the atmosphere and culture of Victorian London as represented by Dickens, but it also goes one step further in its representation of aspects of prostitution at that time that was avoided by him assiduously.

It was delightful to read something that was so well written and of such originality. I certainly believe that is an improvement on the first book in the Charles Maddox series, Murder in Mansfield Park.
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It seems entirely appropriate that on the day that marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dicken's birth I bring you a review of a new book inspired by his body of work. Regular readers will know that I tend to focus primarily on horror, science fiction and fantasy but occasionally I like to read something that is a bit outside my comfort zone. I certainly don't read a huge amount of historical fiction but when I heard about Tom-All-Alone's I have to admit that I was intrigued. The premise of a mystery set in the mists of Dickensian London appeals and by the time I got to the bottom of page one and read "Night and day London moves and sweats and bawls, as riddled with life as a corpse with maggots", I was sold.

Interspersed throughout the main story there is a second narrative following the story of a young woman called Hester. The chapters she appears in detail her life with friends in the seemingly idyllic Solitary House. Through the course of the novel the author starts to slowly drip feed the reader how Hester's tale ties in with the case that Maddox is investigating.

Like Dickens there are many larger than life characters that that vie for your attention, all of them pitched perfectly and each memorable in their own way. Charles Maddox is still finding his feet in his role as a detective and the mistakes that he makes feel that much more real. He is young man driven to discover the truth at all costs.

Maddox has a great uncle who he shares a name with. Maddox Snr was a great ` thief taker` in his time but is suffering from the vagaries of old age. It is becoming increasingly obvious to his family and friends that his once razor sharp mind is beginning to fail him. One moment he is fine, the next his is violent and then suddenly almost catatonic. He endeavours to offer his nephew what little assistance he can but is dying by degrees. The scenes between the two men are particularly touching and very effective. The reader gets glimpses of the investigator the old man once was and the high regard that his nephew still holds him in. Reading the novel with 21st century eyes it is interesting to see how 19th century characters deal with a condition as debilitating as Alzheimer's.

It is only right and proper for a private investigator to have an arch-nemesis on the police force and in Maddox case this comes in the form of inimitable Mr Bucket of the Detective. It's a highlight to see how their relationship evolves throughout the novel.

It's always a pleasure to discover a writer whose work instantly clicks with you. I sincerely hope there will be further mysteries featuring Charles Maddox. The evocative setting, well observed characters and tantalising storytelling had me hooked from the very outset. The writing deftly brings to life all the sights and sounds of the metropolis, however grotesque they have the potential to be. The opportunity to delve into the dark underbelly of Victorian society is just too good to miss. Lynn Shepherd's London is a world of corruption, violence, and dark unpleasant secrets with a little blackmail thrown in for good measure. This is exactly the sort of story I'd like to see adapted for the screen. Actually if the BBC happens upon this review I'm thinking lavish adaption perhaps in time for next winter? Seriously, you'd be on to a winner.

Tom-All-Alone's is published by Corsair and is available in the UK now and will be published as The Solitary House in US/Canada on 1st May 2012.
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VINE VOICEon 15 September 2012
This book is based on Dickens novel Bleak House and is extremely well done. I could actually believe I was reading a Dickens novel and was back in Victorian London. The opening prologue is atmospheric and sets the scene well. I thought the characters were well written and I found I could empathise with them and picture them well. The descriptions of Victorian London are spot on and at times very graphic. The main character Charles Maddox is a likeable chap and I really liked his uncle who is just like many old men of his age. His character made me chuckle. I liked the ending and despite having read bleak house some number of years ago I was taken completely by surprise. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, so why four rather than five stars. A couple of times in the book I was slightly confused, although I did catch up. I also thought it was just a little bit slow at times. This was not enough to put me off the book, but it was there none the less. Despite this, I would recommend this book if you like historical mystery
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on 24 January 2013
The best thing I can say about this book is that it caused me to re-read Bleak House, what a marvellous book that is! This was less on account of characters (and the title) that re-appeared in Ms Shepherd's book, more to see whether passages which I remembered from Bleak House were indeed identical to those in Tom-All-Alone's. It is entirely reasonable to produce a pastiche of Dickens, using the same characters and to some extent the same plot, but lifting chunks into "Hester's" narrative I find unacceptable.

This brings me to the curious adaptation of some of the names: Mr Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock, Inspector Bucket, and no doubt others retain their original names, but Esther, Ada Clare, Mr Jarndyce and Bleak House become Hester, Clara Adams (get it?), Mr Jarvis and Solitary House. Why? Richard Carstone also has an alter ego, which I forget, but he is still addressed as "Rick" by "Mr Jarvis". Even more irritating is the style: by all means try to re-create Dickens's style, though this is as risky a business as trying to re-create Wilde or Wodehouse, but here we from time to time have indications (whether directly or by modern usage) that the events of 1850 are in fact being seen through 21st Century eyes - I find this disconcerting.

As for the plot, I agree with some reviewers that the author tries to include too much, but this didn't worry me that much as I was rarely interested enough. The final twist was quite amusing, but left many questions unanswered: who killed Mr Tulkinghorn, why was Lady Dedlock introduced at all, is Charles Maddox a cat, since he appears (like Dick Barton) to be capable of being shot through the head and then getting up and carrying on? And so on.

A final warning: you don't need to have read Bleak House to follow this story, in fact, as I've indicated, you'd be better off if you haven't. But the introduction near the end of two new characters (though neither actually appears, one with the reasonable alibi that he's dead) will mystify those unfamiliar with The Woman in White, though that book does have some bearing on the final denouement.
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on 20 October 2015
An intriguing and original plot structure tagged on fairly effectively to Dickens's 'Bleak House'. Superbly recreates the atmosphere of Victorian London, and Charles Maddox is a likeable and resourceful character whom I found myself rooting for from the beginning. The characters borrowed from the Dickens novel are expertly reproduced.
A bit frenetic in the closing chapters, but an enjoyable novel. It left a nasty taste in my mouth, however. Why fool about with the plot of a classic novel?
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 9 November 2012
There seems to be a tradition that novels set in Victorian London should be read in the dark days around Christmas. There's something about Dickensian themes which seem to suit this time, and in Tom All Alone's there is plenty of general murkiness and gloom to match what we in Britain see outside our windows.

Tom All Alone's is essentially a detective novel. Charles Maddox, a young ex-policeman has set himself up as a thief-taker. His Uncle, who Charles reveres, was an eminent detective and has mentored young Charles from his early boy-hood in the skills of his work, but alas is now a very elderly man but is still available as a sounding-board to Charles when particularly tricky problems need to be solved. Charles receives a commission from the scheming lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn but soon realises that this is a poisoned chalice which will lead him into some very dark places.

Lynn Shepherd is not constrained by the limits of Victorian sensibility in describing the gruesome murders which follow, nor the terrible conditions of the London slums in which the murders take place. We are taken on a tour around the narrow passages of central London, going in and out of coffee houses, rat-catching pits, disease-ridden brothels, foetid inns and rancid slums with no need to cover up the vile conditions of the time. Perhaps the most shocking descriptions the fate of the mentally ill (and those unfortunates who ended up in private asylums because their family wanted them safely out of the way).

A parallel narrative interleaves with the story of Charles' investigations. A young woman called Hester writes in the first person about her life in The Solitary House, which at first appears to be an idyllic setting peopled by kindly people who form a strong community of mutual support and close friendship. From the start, Hester seems to be an untrustworthy narrator; things seem too good to be true and we want to know what exactly is going on here? As the novel develops a sinister tone creeps into Hester's writing and the two narratives soon begin to feed into each other, increasing the sense of mystery (and horror) behind Charles' investigations.

Lynn Shepherd is a highly-skilled writer. I read this quite long book in three days and looked forward to resuming my reading whenever I put it down. Sometimes a book is good but you still have to slog through it but with Tom All Alone's I was swept up into the atmosphere of London's loathsome alleys and felt as if I was accompanying Charles Maddox as new layers of the horrific plot were revealed. Her character writing is excellent and she manages to achieve many distinctive voices. I especially liked Inspector Bucket which achieved just the right mix of sincerity and duplicity.

For a long time I have been hoping to find a Victorian era novel to equal Michel Faber's masterpiece The The Crimson Petal and the White, and I think Lynn Shepherd has got pretty close to it in Tom All Alone's. I was also reminded of Sarah Waters' book Fingersmith with which Tom All Alone's shares some common themes. From the afterword, I get the impression that Tom All Alone's is one-off novel but this reader at least would be delighted to hear that it is the first in a series. Charles Maddox is a strong and appealing character who could be developed over many further books and I hope the author produces a follow-up before too long.
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