Monday, June 18, 2012

The Solitary House

This second of Lynn Shepherd’s “literary murders,” The Solitary House, makes good use of several characters readers will remember from Dickens’s Bleak House. Playing prominent roles here are the despicable lawyer, Edward Tulkinghorn, the reliable Inspector Bucket, and a character closely resembling Esther (called Hester this time around). That the novel is written in the style of classic English novels of the period is probably what first will attract most readers to it, but The Solitary House is also a very fine mystery – one with an ending reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Sutter Island.

The novel’s central character, Charles Maddox, was a Metropolitan police officer before he was dismissed for insubordination. Now he is determined to earn his living as a self-employed detective - or as he sometimes calls himself and his famous detective uncle, a “thief taker.” Maddox, a man of great curiosity and varied interests, is a natural at the business of detecting, but he is still struggling to build a reputation of his own. For that reason, he is both surprised and flattered when Mr. Tulkinghorn, one of the most powerful lawyers in London approaches him about a job.

Lynn Shepherd
Someone is sending threatening letters to a wealthy London banker, and Tulkinghorn wants Maddox to identify and stop the culprit before any harm comes to his client. Tulkinghorn’s request seems to be so straightforward that Maddox eagerly accepts the charge despite not having completed his current case, the search for a young woman being sought by the father she has never met. Maddox decides he will work the two cases simultaneously, and he does – until things take a nasty turn that begins him wondering if the two cases are somehow connected. When some of his sources begin to suffer horrible deaths at the hands of a psychotic killer, Maddox realizes that his life - and those of everyone closest to him - are in jeopardy.

Readers of Dickens will feel right at home in the London so meticulously recreated here by Shepherd. But the real core of her story is the relationship between young Charles Maddox and his great uncle, the man to whom Charles turns for advice and insight as his investigation progresses. The old man, one of the pioneering detectives of his day, seems to be suffering from some type of senile dementia and is confined to his home. It is painful (particularly for those readers who have watched their own loved ones go through a similar process, I suspect) to watch the old man struggle with the awareness of what is happening to him. He is still capable of moments of brilliant insight, but is just as likely to lapse into periods of rage and paranoia. Through it all, and despite his own battles, Charles is by his side as they solve the mystery of The Solitary House together. This one is fun.

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