Thursday, August 30, 2012
Review: The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd
If you've read Charles Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE then Lynn Shepherd's THE SOLITARY HOUSE will probably seem more familiar to you than it did to me. Written by Shepherd to mark Charles Dickens' Bicentenary, this is a dark, atmospheric, expertly researched Victorian mystery with an enigmatic ending you won't soon forget.
In fact, THE SOLITARY HOUSE was one of the titles, Dickens considered giving his BLEAK HOUSE. Of course I didn't know that going in, but it makes sense. However, it's just as well things worked out as they did. Though 'Bleak' and 'Solitary' are both excellent words, applied to the existence of the wretched poor of Victorian London.
However, a minor quibble, I confess I found myself a bit lost along the way while reading this auxiliary (that's what I'm calling it, anyway) tale which features some of the characters drawn from Dickens coupled with the very bleak atmospherics Shepherd (and Dickens) were/are so good at. (I've been meaning to read BLEAK HOUSE and have a nice hardcover version right near the top of one of my TBR pile of books practically staring me in the face. Just haven't gotten around to it.)
But I think if like me, you're not familiar with the original source, it's best to read THE SOLITARY HOUSE without thinking much of Dickens (if you can help it). On its own this is a brilliantly conceived and written mystery set mostly on the poor side of London town, not a place I would have cared to linger in reality. Believe me you will be caught up in Shepherd's grim tale. But if you're very familiar with BLEAK HOUSE, it will likely color your view of Shepherd's book one way or the other. On the whole, I think, it would be a positive view. Shepherd is a very fine writer.
Note: I loved her previous book which took characters from Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK and turned the classic story into a very delicious mystery, MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK. Once you read this current book, you'll want to travel further back in English history to Regency times and give that one a whirl as well. Lynn Shepherd is one of the more daring writers out there.
To read this very talented author is to fall deep into the clutches of a different world - in THE SOLITARY HOUSE - it is the pitiless, foul and dank side of 1850 London, where the poor are left (literally) to sink or swim. Does the term 'baby farm' cause you to take a deep breath of revulsion? Yeah, me too. It was not a pleasant world.
This is the unsparing background in which we find Charles Maddox, once a police officer, now toiling as a sort of private detective (Victorian version). With the help of his legendary uncle Maddox, a brilliant 'thief taker' now sadly suffering from something very similar to Alzheimer's disease, Charles manages to scratch out a living.
When he is approached by Tulkington, a sinister well-to-do lawyer and keeper of secrets of the rich, on a fairly simple matter - tracing a sender of anonymous letters, Charles suspects something more is amiss, but he can't afford to turn down the case and doesn't.
The story is revealed from the point of view of three different characters and while I always say I don't like that sort of thing, I don't seem to mind it when it's well done. The characters 'borrowed' from Dickens' classic are: Lady Dedlock (what a great name), Mr. Tulkington a crooked lawyer, police Inspector Bucket who really comes to life in the second half of the book as we learn and are reminded that appearances can be so deceiving, and the rather simple Hester (Esther, I'm told, in the original) who narrates her own story with its own heartbreaking denouement which dovetails near the end with Charles' ever more dangerous investigation.
I know I've used this word before, but it fits, so I'll use it again; this is a byzantine plot which works in several story lines, one of a missing mother and child, and such vile secrets from the past and present and corruption so hard to fathom, so repulsive, that you will hardly believe your eyes. There are also the first preliminary killings (unrecorded as such) by the psychotic killer who will, in future be known as Jack the Ripper.
The revelations when they come will cause you to read the final chapters in dread. Minor quibble aside, this is a superb book, though not perhaps, for the very squeamish. Still and all, buck up and read the thing, you will be enthralled.