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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Tom-All-Alone's or The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House

My book has two titles – The Solitary House in the US, and Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, and in fact the source of those two titles is probably as good a place to start as any.  Both Tom-All-Alone’s and The Solitary House were titles Charles Dickens considered when he was writing Bleak House. I’ve chosen these ‘alternative titles’ for my book because it is, in effect, an ‘alternative Bleak House’.

My book is a murder mystery which runs in parallel with events in Bleak House. At certain points in the plot the two stories converge, and episodes in Bleak House also take place (usually from a different viewpoint) in my novel. I also draw in characters from Dickens, ranging from the lawyer Tulkinghorn, to little Jo the crossing-sweeper, to the first detective in English fiction, Inspector Bucket.

So why Dickens, and why Bleak House?

My first novel was called Murder at Mansfield Park, and that title is one of those that do exactly what it says on the tin: I took Jane Austen’s novel and turned it into a murder mystery rather in the format of a classic Agatha Christie. The fun for me in that novel – and hopefully for the reader as well – was not just to take Austen into a new genre, but to write the book in her style. That was a real labour of love, and I worked very hard both to mimic her beautiful prose, and ensure that the language I used was authentic for the period.

I never intended to write a sequel, but so many readers told me they loved Charles Maddox, my ‘thief taker’ detective, that I realised it was rather foolish not to make more use of him.  And I also realised that I might be able to develop the idea of ‘literary murder’ further, and take on another giant of English literature. And who better than Charles Dickens?

That’s what led me to Bleak House, which I’ve always believed to be his masterpiece. I decided very early on that I didn’t want to imitate Dickens’ style, so I opted instead for inhabiting his world. I immersed myself in Victorian London, in an attempt to re-create the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. I researched the leather trade in Bermondsey, and the rookeries of Covent Garden and St Giles; I was shocked by what I learned about the sex trade (and I don’t consider myself naïve), and surprised how quickly villages like Brixton were becoming absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl.  It was a fascinating journey, and I’ve been thrilled how many people have responded to the portrait of London I’ve tried to paint for them.

So if you adore Dickens, I think you’ll have fun reading Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House – I’ve certainly written it in a spirit of love and respect, and the more deeply you know Dickens, the more echoes and ‘nuggets’ you will find in my novel. But I’ve also been very careful to construct my book so that everyone can enjoy it, so if you’ve never read Bleak House, or any other Dickens for that matter, I hope it works just as well as a good old-fashioned Victorian murder mystery.

Tom-All-Alone’s is available from the UK from Corsair, and The Solitary House is issued in North America by Random House. The US Kindle version includes a free bonus copy of Bleak House. Lynn’s website is, and this includes a video which was shot in some of the locations used in the novel. Her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.

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