The Solitary House – Lynn Shepherd

From where we stand, the air is so deadened with a greasy yellow fog that you can barely see three paces ahead, and risk stumbling in the street over milk-cans, shattered bottles, and what look at first like rat-ridden heaps of rags, until they stare back at you with gin-hollowed eyes, and hold out their blackened hands for hard cash….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. So the narrator describes Dickens’ London in 1850.

And this is the London of Charles Maddox, an interesting young man.  He has a very nineteenth-century obsession with science and exotic curios and was once a bright young police officer until dismissed for insubordination.  Now he tries to make ends meet as a private detective and is working on his only case.  He’s been hired by Mr. Chadwick to find the daughter he disowned years ago when she had an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  Is she still alive and is the child still alive?  Charles barely starts to investigate when he gets his second case.  Edward Tulkinghorn, an attorney, offers him a handsome sum to find the person responsible for anonymous threatening letters received by the wealthy banker Sir Julius Cremorne. The case proves to be far more than it appears and Charles pursues it even after being warned off.  Death, violence and bodily harm come to Charles and those helping him.

Charles learned his methods of detection from his uncle, a famous “thief taker” also named Charles Maddox.  He needs the help of his uncle to solve his cases, but unfortunately Uncle Charles suffers from increasingly severe bouts of dementia.

The novel pays homage to Dickens’ Bleak House, and several of Dickens’ characters are repurposed. The story is told in a present tense narrative, with the reader being brought into the plot as a modern observer.  The narrator talks to the reader directly telling us what to watch out for and things that Charles doesn’t know.  Some readers might find this annoying, but I liked it.  It seemed that I was hovering above the action, watching it unfold.  For anyone who loves Victorian mysteries, this is a must read.

NetGalley review     Publication date 5.1.12

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