Authors have to pick a character or a plot (or a few) to focus on in order to tell us a story. But when I read a vast, sprawling story, sometimes I wonder what’s happening in the margins. Not every character can be a lead character, after all. There’s just not enough room (unless you’re Tolstoy or Dickens) to devote to telling all the stories. In a good sprawling story, an author will give their readers the sense that those peripheral characters are busily living their lives when no one is paying attention to them. What Lynn Shepherd has done with the Charles Maddox series is to redirect the spotlight over to those other characters. In The Solitary House, Shepherd tells us a story that might have happened in the margins of Bleak House and The Woman in White. I was a bit annoyed to discover that I had started the Maddox series with the second book, but I ended up enjoying myself so much that the annoyance quickly passed. Shepherd completely transported me with The Solitary House—so much so that I went to Amazon to buy the other three volumes in the series as soon as I finished it.
Charles Maddox used to be a police detective. Now that he’s independent it seems that his career might end before it begins. Maddox was trained by his namesake, an uncle now in decline. When we meet him (if, like me, you started with the second book in the series) in a small flat, living with a feline that is fond of sleeping and shedding on his clothing. He only has one case: to find the missing granddaughter of a Mr. Chadwick. When Chadwick learned that his daughter was pregnant, he turned her out of the house. She gave birth in a workhouse and both mother and child disappeared without a trace. Consequently, Maddox hasn’t been able to make much headway. He is following his only lead when he’s summoned to the offices of one Edward Tulkinghorn—the sinister lawyer of Bleak House—to find out who is sending one of his clients (not Lady Dedlock) threatening letters. For all his resources, Tulkinghorn cannot locate the man.
With a little help from his uncle, Maddox finds the author of the letters. Part of what got Maddox in trouble in his first career was an inability to leave questions unanswered, even when it would be politic to leave them that way. Tulkinghorn doesn’t want to know why the letter writer was threatening his client; he just wants to know who it is so that the man can be stopped. When the letter writer is murdered and his lodgings are torched*, Maddox can’t help but find out why it was so important for the man to be silenced.
Before long, Maddox is uncovering evidence of a story far more sinister than anything Dickens or even Wilkie Collins cooked up. The dialog and setting of The Solitary House are absolutely pitch perfect. I was in awe of the way Shepherd drew in both of her source novels to create something entirely fresh and new. The Solitary House doesn’t replace either Bleak House or The Woman in White. Rather, it’s like hearing what else characters from those stories might have been up to when they weren’t on-stage in their original novels.
I would recommend that any reader who hasn’t read Bleak House or The Woman in White at least skim the plot summaries in Wikipedia before reading The Solitary House. Without a little background knowledge, some of the things that happen will seem inexplicable—Tulkinghorn’s fate in particular. I haven’t read Bleak House, but I did watch the most recent BBC adaptation of it and I’ve listened to a dramatization of The Woman in White. Shepherd does change a few character names, but they’re still similar enough to the original character names to bring up the right associations if names like Tulkinghorn, Dedlock, and Sir Percival Glyde weren’t big enough hints.
How have I not heard of Lynn Shepherd before this? I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to find a book as good as The Fifth Season to read for a while, because I’m not that lucky, but The Solitary House was so good that I think I have a new favorite author**.
* Shepherd uses this development to explain one of the odder episodes from Bleak House. I had to grin.
** Not absolute favorite, obviously. I can’t pick just one. Shepherd just has a place on an increasingly long list.