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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

My favorite Dickens novel is Bleak House, so it isn't much of a surprise that The Solitary House caught my attention...and held it.  From the first page, I was definitely hooked by the language of Victorian London so reminiscent of  Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins.  The inclusion of some of the characters from Bleak House added to the fun.

Charles Maddox is the young detective who takes an assignment from the well-known lawyer Tulkinghorn, even though he has reservations about both the man and the assignment.  At the same time, he is working on a case for another client in which he is attempting to locate the client's grandchild who disappeared some sixteen years previously.  Maddox persists in searching for information about the infant, although he knows the chances of locating the grandchild are slim--at best.  Of course, from the beginning we suspect that the two cases will eventually be intertwined.

The plot is rather slowly developed, as is typical of Victorian novels, but I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of 1850 London and the unhurried revelations/clues.  Since I like Dickens and love Wilkie Collins (not the usual order of things to prefer Collins, but I love mysteries and Collins did them so well) the detail and language were not off-putting to me, but this may not be the case for some readers who may prefer a faster pace.

The omniscient narrator was sometimes beneficial and sometimes annoying--kind of an amalgam of the 4 ghosts from A Christmas Carol.  At times I appreciated the Victorian style of including the omniscient (or mostly so) narrator, and at times the voice was intrusive and distracting and, well, annoying.

 I don't like the tendency to make crimes more horrific (there is a character who presages Jack the Ripper) and more sordid than would have been included in a Victorian novel-- although beneath the surface of the prudish Victorian culture, there was definitely a great deal of sexual misconduct that spanned the social hierarchy from top to bottom.

My preference is always for the development of characters, the discovery of clues, the search for motivation, and the process of  solving the mystery rather than descriptions of the crimes themselves.  Unfortunately, the current predilection is to make the crimes increasingly gruesome and bizarre and to dwell on those aspects rather than untangling a mystery.

Charles Maddox is an intriguing  character and not  completely likable; he is a flawed individual with a number of secrets --some of which remain only hints of a prurient nature, some are gradually revealed.  His great-uncle Maddox, the famous thief-taker who has been young Charles' mentor provides a means of viewing Charles from another angle.  As the elder Maddox slips into dementia, Charles' care and concern for his great-uncle show Charles at his best.  When lucid, the older man is able to provide information and advice that aid in the investigation, and I'm sorry that his role was so limited as he was one of the more interesting characters in the novel.

The plot doesn't work all that well for me, and the conclusion has several points that bothered me a bit, but I will certainly read Shepherd's next novel to see if she reveals some of Charles' secrets that she held back on.

Fiction.  Historical Mystery.  2012.  352 pages.


  1. Thanks for the great review. This one is nearing the top of my short stack right now, and I'm looking forward to it. I've gotten bogged down with a long book on ExxonMobil that is as dry as it sounds and that has delayed me for a few days. I'm also reading Bleak House for the first time right now, so I'm hoping to get Solitary House read before the library comes calling for the book.

  2. Sam - If you like Bleak House, you should try Quincunx by Palliser. It is really much closer to Dickens in style and content than is The Solitary House and much, much longer, but definitely worth the time.

  3. It does sound good. I look forward to your thoughts as the author progresses. :)

  4. I have yet to get to Bleak House but it's on my lifetime list of books I must read. Ditto what Kelly said!

  5. Kailana - It is fun to watch an author become more and more immersed in a series.

    Bookfool- Bleak House is long, but I loved it. I didn't even remember Tulkinghorn or Lady Dedlock specifically until reading The Solitary House, but it made me smile to see them reincarnated, even if only briefly.