You will definitely read The Solitary House from beginning to end, though perhaps not without some difficulty, if you tend to want to get on with things. Author Lynn Shepherd’s well-received debut novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, was a literate re-thinking of Jane Austen’s style and métier, while her new novel ambitiously sets out to re-imagine the world and words of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Charles Maddox, a bright, irascible and somewhat quick-tempered guy, is trying to earn his living as a private sleuth in 1850s London, after being sacked by the London police. He’s hired by eminent attorney Edward Tulkinghorn, ostensibly to find the source of threatening letters that some of his clients have received. But Tulkinghorn is seeking something of quite a different nature. Charles tumbles to the fact that he’s being used for another purpose—protecting the terrible secrets of some of the city’s most influential powerbrokers—and he discovers deadly purpose and personal danger behind a string of horrific murders that have dogged his steps since taking Tulkinghorn’s assignment. In his detecting, he benefits from sporadic but incisive help from his great-uncle Maddox, now suffering from encroaching dementia, but once a legendary detective and “thief taker” in his own right. Charles also has another client, a man seeking the possible whereabouts of a long-missing grandchild.
This tasty slice of Victoriana is sure to resonate with fans of the genre.
Readers will quickly figure out that the two storylines are eventually going to intersect, but getting to the denouement is a complicated and sometimes hair-raising experience. The plot moves through dark streets and alleys in a gritty, grimy Victorian London that shows a sinister underbelly far scarier than could ever be imagined.
Fans of Charles Dickens will revel in this engrossing tale featuring an attractive and stubborn sleuth, though it may be a harder slog for those who like a more straightforward narrative. Besides two narrative points of view (one that follows Charles, unaccountably couched in the present tense, and one simply called “Hester’s Narrative”), there’s a third anonymous narrator, a kind of one-man Greek chorus, whose comments pop up occasionally while adding little to the story’s progression. These can be a distraction in a story already bursting with compelling scenes and characters. The author’s obvious descriptive skills, meticulous research into the era and fine storytelling ability would stand out even more without the narrative complications. However, this tasty slice of Victoriana is sure to resonate with fans of the genre.