Lynn Shepherd – The Solitary House
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Historical Mystery
Started: 13 March 2012
Finished: 17 March 2012
Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I like my mysteries historical, and if they’re taking place in Victorian London, so much the better.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 March 2012.
London, a detective gets
in over his head.
Summary: Charles Maddox is a private detective, struggling to earn a living after being kicked off the London police force. He is driven equally by the memory of his sister’s kidnapping many years ago, and the example set by his great-uncle, a once-famous detective whose wits have begun to fail him. When Charles receives a letter from a Mr. Tulkinghorn, a secretive attorney whose clients number some of the most powerful people in the kingdom, he is eager to take the case. At first, it seems fairly straightforward: determine the source of some threatening letters received by one of Tulkinghorn’s clients. But the further Charles gets into his investigations, the more complicated things become. Complicated… and dangerous, for those involved in the plot he uncovers would do anything to preserve their secrets.
Review: The Solitary House does everything that I want my historical mysteries to do. It brings the historical period (in this case, 1850s London) to life, complete with dense fogs, muddy streets, stinking tanneries, and seedy taverns. Its central mystery is well-woven, dropping enough hints and clues to allow me to piece together some things on my own, but still throwing in some good twists and turns and surprises along the way. Its main character is developed outside of the detective work, and there are interesting secondary characters as well – in this case, primarily Charles’s great-uncle Maddox. Watching a brilliant man succumb to the effects of dementia, and the effects this has on Charles, is one of the “quieter” pieces of the book – not murder and arson and pickpockets and prostitutes – but is excellently done, and extremely affecting. And finally, it’s well-written; in this case in a prose style that emulates Victorian conventions, which occasionally made things a little dense – it’s not a fast read – but was well worth it for the historical tone it added to the story. The only exception was the omniscient narrator, which is a tricky device to get right, and is used relatively sparingly by Shepherd, but which I still found distracting whenever it cropped up.
The Solitary House is based on/inspired by Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I can’t give any more comparison than that, since (to my shame!) the only Dickens I’ve read is A Christmas Carol. But as evidenced by the fact that I loved The Solitary House, a familiarity with Dickens is not really required. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have helped, however. About a third of the book was given over to a narrative from an orphaned girl named Hester, and I found these really confusing at first, since they don’t tie into the main narrative until right at the end. When everything is revealed, it made sense, but for most of the book they felt out of place, especially since they interrupted the main story at what felt like strange times. Presumably, a working knowledge of Bleak House would have given me a better idea of how everything fit together. Similarly, some of the characters in this book are drawn directly from Dickens and other Victorian authors, so I definitely felt that there were some minor moments whose significance went straight over my head. I’d be interested to read Bleak House and then revisit The Solitary House, to see how my opinions may change. But overall, despite not being in the Dickens in-crowd, I enjoyed the heck out of this book, and am looking forward to reading more of Shepherd’s work. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Definitely recommended for those who liked Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, Victorian novels, or historical (and/or literary-based) mysteries.
First Line: London. Michelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 21: “Suke is clearly in a cheerful mood, having downed her usual three morning quarterns of gin and peppermint before presenting herself for paying custom.” – a quarter, or a fourth part, especially of certain weights and measures, as of a pound, ounce, peck, or pint.
- p. 168: ““So you mind my words, next time you find yourself following a well-cut spencer down the Strand.”” – a short, close-fitting jacket, frequently trimmed with fur, worn in the 19th century by women and children.
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