"The Solitary House," by Lynn Shepherd (Delacorte Press)
The star of Lynn Shepherd's intriguing mystery novel is mid-century Victorian London, depicted in all its filthy glory and without a hint of the jolly charm that found its way into the tales of Charles Dickens.
But then charm is hardly the point in "The Solitary House." Shepherd artfully mixes a tale of murder with elements common to Dickens' writing, such as the prostitutes, rat catchers and other unfortunates who populate London's foul, gas-lighted streets and the powerful, selfish gentry who control the lives of so many.
Shepherd has played off the work of a literary giant before. In her debut novel, "Murder at Mansfield Park," she placed Jane Austen characters at the center of a murder mystery. In the case of "The Solitary House," Dickens' own "Bleak House" is the touchstone, its scheming lawyer Tulkinghorn and police inspector Bucket both pivotal characters in the brutal and bloody story Shepherd unfolds.
Charles Maddox is a "thief taker," the colorful term for a private detective in 1850. An ex-policeman who had been pushed out of the force, he is following in the footsteps of his great-uncle — and caring for the former detective, now beset with what today would be called dementia. Maddox is hired by the devious Tulkinghorn to determine who has been sending blackmail threats to a leading banker. Unknown to Maddox — but known to readers thanks to a Dickensian narrator who sees all — Tulkinghorn has other plans that could threaten the young detective if he uncovers the whole truth.
Maddox is trying to resolve another case, too, still searching for a young woman born in a workhouse. It's a nearly impossible task in a day of incredible poverty and flimsy social contracts. Meanwhile, a young ward narrates her own story, its connection to the mystery unclear at first but tantalizing in its obvious purpose — to collide somewhere with the overall narrative.
Those unfamiliar with Dickens' "Bleak House" need not worry that they won't enjoy Shepherd's "The Solitary House." At its core, Shepherd's book is a historical mystery with a flavor and character all its own. Her suspenseful story and winning prose ably serve her literary conceit. Fans of Dickens, meanwhile, will find it a treat.