The Solidary House by Lynn Shepherd
In a blistering remake of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, author Lynn Shepherd exposes the cruel underbelly of Victorian London in 1850 in the novel, The Solitary House. Some movies and books romanticize the time period, but there’s no doubt it was a difficult time to live for many starving, abandoned children and economically stressed adults. Sheperd pulls no punches in showing this side of London, even as she weaves an intricate murder mystery.
Our hero, Charles Maddox had been an up-and-coming officer with the Metropolitan police until a charge of insubordination ended his career. Thereafter he tried to eke out a living by tracking down criminals. He is at first gratified when a highly successful personage seeks him out to solve a mystery for him.
A well-known lawyer, Edward Tulkinghorn has powerful clients to protect, and a lethal secret he will stop at nothing to conceal. However, that secret is now under threat from an unseen antagonist–one who must be tracked down at all costs, before it’s too late. That’s where Charles comes in.
Tulkinghorn hires Charles to find the antagonist. To Charles’ dismay, after he successfully locates the culprit, the man ends up dead. Soon more bodies populate the landscape and Charles himself finds himself in deadly peril. As Charles tries to ferret out the truth behind Tulkinghorn’s deadly game, he seeks out the wisdom of his uncle, also named Charles Maddox. Unfortunately, the elder Maddox is suffering from what we would now call dementia and is only occasionally lucid enough to help the younger Maddox in any tangible way.
Through Maddox’s eyes we see a world where girls as young as ten work as prostitutes, unwanted babies are ruthlessly disposed of, and those who pose a threat to great men are done away with without remorse.
While pursuing answers to this case, Maddox is also trying to solve a missing person’s case from many years ago. Eventually he has to determine if the two cases are related.
There are many twists and turns to this novel and the ending is satisfying even as it leaves an opening for another novel to follow. I have no idea if the author plans other Charles Maddox novels or not but they would be welcomed by many readers of this novel, I am sure.
It is worth noting that Charles Dickens had considered the title of The Solitary House before eventually naming his novel Bleak House. Kudos to the author for writing what she calls a ‘literary murder,’ and for honoring the work of Dickens. He would be proud of what she’s done for the early 1850’s and I can’t think of any higher praise than that.
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