I had an ambivalent reaction to The Solitary House, which is sort of a riff on Bleak House. It is not exactly a retelling of Dickens’s book. Although some story lines are re-interpreted, most of the Dickens characters appear in the background of the novel. My ambivalence is because Bleak House is one of my favorite Dickens novels, and I have not been happy with some of the retellings of classics that have appeared lately, particularly those that seem to miss the point of the original works. I am also a little dismayed by what Shepherd has done to some of my favorite Dickens characters. However, I find I have to admire the masterful way Shepherd has worked the threads of Dickens’s novel into such a different story. On the whole, almost despite myself, I am giving this novel a big recommendation for its originality.
Charles Maddox is a former detective for the London police force who left under undesirable circumstances. He is hired by Edward Tulkinghorn, a mysterious solicitor who has an evil reputation. A client of Tulkinghorn’s has been receiving threatening letters, and Maddox’s assignment is to find out who is sending them. Charles descends into the squalor of London to discover the author of the notes, but when he turns the information over to Tulkinghorn, the author of the notes is brutally murdered.
Thinking that this is not a coincidence, Charles begins investigating Tulkinghorn himself, as well as his client, Julius Cremorne. In doing so, he comes upon evidence of a serial killer. He also runs up against Inspector Bucket, his former police supervisor.
Charles’s story is written in a jokey third-person omniscient narration that often addresses the reader directly and is interlarded with many references to Dickens and some quotes from Shakespeare. Imagine a style that is like a postmodern Dickens. This narration is interleaved with the first-person narrative of Hester, seemingly the same quiet, loving, capable Esther Somerset of Bleak House. It is not until the end of the novel that these two stories merge horribly together.
Ultimately, I am coming down on the side of strong admiration for this book. It is completely absorbing and inventive, well written and literate, and actually convincing as a twisted alternate vision of Bleak House minus the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. It made me want to return to Bleak House, which I have not read recently, and dig out all the references. It is a gothic novel that becomes a serious creepfest, and you know how I love those.
I see that Shepherd has also riffed on Mansfield Park. As much as I am dreading what she will do to my beloved Jane Austen, I think I’m going to have to read it.