Lynn Shepherd’s The Solitary House: An Enthralling Detective Story in Victorian London
At the beginning of Lynn Shepherd's latest novel, The Solitary House, Charles Maddox is living by himself with a guilty conscience from a long-held secret, and reeling from the misfortune of being too smart for his own good. He has been fired from the police force for his stubborn insistence that he is always correct. Thus, even though he was born into a family of wealth and privilege with many opportunities in front of him, Maddox finds himself quite alone in life.
But rather than sulking about his fate, Maddox finds a way to use his lot in life to his advantage. Since he is both part of the elite yet simultaneously rejected by it, Maddox has the good fortune of being a loner. Why is this good fortune? Because it allows Maddox to move seamlessly in and out of different social circles in high society, which is an advantage rather than a hindrance for Maddox in his new profession of private investigator.
Through Maddox's various investigations we are swept into 1850s London (Charles Dickens' London, as it turns out) where we become privy to the deeds and misdeeds of some of society's supposedly greatest men. Initially, Maddox finds himself investigating two cases: one involving a missing child and one in which a well-to-do lawyer is the recipient of several threatening letters. These lead to more cases. His dear uncle (after whom he was named) seems to be slowly going mad; there is a murder that is covered up by arson; his lady friend and confidante is brutally murdered in her home; and a grave is found filled with the bodies of numerous babies that have been buried there over the years. As his life becomes a whirlwind, Maddox finds himself asking if the mounting caseload is just coincidence or if there is some greater meaning that ties all of these events together.
For those who yearn for the days of Sherlock Holmes, The Solitary House is certain to be a new fan favorite. Shepherd has created a character with enough personality to carry him through a series of complicated mysteries in a world that now seems foreign and alarmingly familiar all at once.
The Young Man
The young man at the desk puts down his pen and sits back in his chair. The fog has been thickening all afternoon, and whatever sun might once have shone is now sinking fast. The window before him is as blank as if it has been papered over. For all he can see outside, the room might give on the flat expanses of the Essex marshes, or command the ancient forests of the Kentish heights. Or it might—as indeed it is—be on the first floor of a London lodging-house, in a narrow street not far from the British Museum. That fact is significant in itself, as we shall see, and it is not necessary to be a detective (as this young man is) to make a number of other useful deductions about the character of the person who inhabits this space. He is a single man, this Charles Maddox, since the bed is narrow, the room small, and neither is very clean. He is careless of his appearance, to judge by the waistcoat hanging on the wardrobe door and the tangle of shirts spilling from the chest, but there are other things he does care about, for a large black cat has appropriated the best and warmest chair, which looks to have been placed next to the fire for precisely that purpose. He is a sentimental young man, then, but more than anything else he is a curious one. For by his possessions shall ye know him, and this room is a mirror of Charles Maddox’s mind. He has little interest in languages, so has never come across the word wunderkammer, but he has created one nevertheless—a small but perfect ‘cabinet of wonders’. Every level surface carries its prize—mantelpiece, bookcase, desk, even the wash-stand. An ostrich egg, and a piece of pale grey stone, slightly granular to the touch, imprinted with the whorl of a perfect ammonite; the blank face of an African mask, bearded with woven fibre, and next to it something black and shrivelled and eyeless that looks disconcertingly like a human head; a wooden box of old coins, and a blue jar filled with shells and pieces of coral; a case of stuffed birds feathered in primary colours that cannot be native to these drab shores; and a scimitar blade with a worn and battered handle that clearly once boasted jewels. There are maps, and prints, and charts of the voyages of the great explorers. And one whole wall is lined with bookshelves, many not quite straight, so that the volumes lean against the slope like dinghies in a wind. We are beginning to form a picture of this young man, but before you smile indulgently at the hopeless clutter, and dismiss him as a mere dilettante, remember that this is the age of the gifted amateur. Remember too, that in 1850 it is still possible—just—for an intelligent man to span the sciences and still attain a respectable proficiency in them all. If, of course, he has money enough, and time. If, in short, he is a gentleman. It is the right question to ask about Charles Maddox, but it does not come with an easy answer.
Nor, it appears, does the task he is presently embarked upon. There is nothing scientific about this, it seems. He stirs, then sighs. London is full of noises, but today even the barrel-organ on the corner of the street is stifled and indistinct, as if being played underwater. It’s hardly the afternoon for such an unpromising task, but it can be postponed no longer. He picks up his pen with renewed determination, and begins again. So engrossed is he—so intent on finding words that will keep hope in check but keep it, nonetheless, alive—that he does not hear the knock at the door the first time it comes. Nor the second. It is only when a handful of grit patters against the glass that Charles pushes back his chair and goes to the window. He can barely make out the features of the man standing on the steps, but he does not need to know the name, to know the uniform. He pulls up the sash.
“What is it?” he calls, frowning. What business has Bow Street here?
The man steps back and looks up, and Charles finds he recognises him after all.
“Batten—is that you? What do you want?”
“Message for you, Mr Maddox. From Inspector Field.”
“Wait there—I’m coming down.”
The message, when Charles gets it, is no more than two scrawled lines, but such brevity was only to be expected from such a man, and in such circumstances.
“The Inspector thought you’d like to see for y’self, sir,” says Batten, stamping his feet against the cold, his breath coming in gusts and merging into the fog. “Before we do the necessary. Seeing as you’re taking such an interest in the Chadwick case.”
“Tell Inspector Field that I am indebted to him. I will be there directly.”
“You know where it is—Tom-All-Alone’s? I’d take you m’self, only I’m on my way home and it’s the opposite way.”
“Don’t worry—I’ll find it.”
Charles gives the man a shilling for his trouble, and returns to his room for his coat and muffler. The former is over the back of the chair, the latter—it turns out—under the cat. There is the customary tussle, which ends in its customary way, and when Charles leaves the house ten minutes later the muffler remains behind. There is probably nothing for it but to buy another one; when he can afford it. He turns his collar up against the chill, and disappears from sight into the coaly fog.
There’s no lamp at the corner of the street, just the little charcoal-furnace of the chestnut-seller. It throws a red glow up at her face, and onto the drawn features of four dirty little children clustered around her skirts. Not for the first time, the woman has a swollen black bruise around one eye. As he steps off the kerb, Charles only just avoids being trampled under an omnibus heaving with people that veers huge out of the dense brown haze into the path of an unlit brewer’s dray. He springs back in time, but not fast enough to avoid a spatter of wet dung from hip to knee. It’s not an auspicious start, and he hurls a few well-honed insults at both ’bus driver and crossing-sweeper before dodging through the traffic to the other side and heading south down an almost deserted Tottenham Court Road. No street-sellers tonight, and the only shop still open is Hine the butcher, who runs no risk of thieving raids in the lurid glare of his dozen jets of gas. A couple of old tramps are warming their faces against the glass, but paying customers are sparse. The afternoon seems suspended between day and dark, and the circles of milky light cast by the gas-lamps dispel the gloom no more than a few feet around. A gaggle of raggedly link-boys follow him hopefully for a while, tugging at his coat-tails and offering him their torches, “Light you home for sixpence!” “Darn’t listen to ’im—I’ll do it for a joey—whatcha say, mister? Can’t say fairer than that.” Charles eventually shakes them off—literally, in one case—and smiles to himself when one lad calls after him asking if he can see in the dark, “ ’cause yer going to need’ta.” Even in daylight, the city changes character every dozen yards. A fog like this plays tricks with the senses, blanking out familiar landmarks and shrinking distances to no farther than the eye can see. Having patrolled these streets for the best part of a year, Charles should know them, if anyone does, but there is something else at work here—an ability he has to render the map in his head to the ground under his feet, which explains the assurance of his step. A modern neurologist would say he had unusually well-developed spatial cognition combined with almost photographic memory function. Charles has more than a passing interest in the new advances in daguerreotyping, so he might well understand the meaning of those last words even if not the science behind them, but he would most certainly smile at the pretension. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been doing this since he was a little boy, and thinks of it—in so far as he thinks of it at all—as little more than a lucky and very useful knack.
Once past St Giles Circus the line of shops peters out and the road narrows. A few minutes later Charles stops under a street-lamp before turning, rather less confidently this time, down a dingy side lane. It’s unlit, with alleys branching off left and right. He stands for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark, and wonders if he should have hired one of those boys after all. He rates his chances well enough against a lone footpad, but for a year or more this part of London has been notorious for a spate of garrotting attacks, and the men who use these miserable backwaters for cover ply that trade in threes and fours. No-one but a fool or a foreigner would venture willingly into such a maze of dilapidated houses, seeming blind and yet teeming behind, as Charles well knows, with a desperate human detritus that has no choice but to call the vile haunts of Tom-All-Alone’s home. Even the fog seems more malevolent here. It funnels down from the main thoroughfare, and eddies ghostily into archways and casements. Charles takes a deep breath and starts off again, his ears suddenly attentive to the whispers and creakings of the crumbling tenements on either side. Half a dozen times in as many months the ground round here has been shaken by a sudden crash as one of these structures has subsided, throwing a tower of dust into the dirty London sky. The last was barely three weeks before, and when the scavengers moved in to rake the wreckage they found more than two dozen bodies—men, women, and children—huddled together for warmth half naked, in a room less than fifteen feet square.
The farther Charles goes, the thicker the fog becomes, and once or twice he thinks he sees darker shapes and shadows loom and then retreat before him—if they are men they do not show themselves, leaving his agitated imagination oppressed by phantasms. But only too horribly real is the sound of the fever cart, creaking its own slow way through the narrow alleys somewhere nearby, the cries of warning smothered in the dead air. He’s more relieved than he’ll admit to turn a bend in the alley and see the entrance to a low covered way, with a solitary lamp looming at the farther end. He ducks his head and starts along the tunnel, though not without at least one anxious glance behind: If ever there was a place precisely adapted for thieves to waylay the unwary, then this is surely it. The walls are running with moisture that drips into pools on the floor and slides in runnels down the back of his neck, and he wishes, not for the first time, that he’d been firmer with the cat. He quickens his step, but the farther he goes, the more he becomes aware of an all-too-familiar sickly reek. When he comes out into the open it’s to an iron railing and a choked and ruined burial-ground, crowded in on all sides by half-derelict buildings, the gravestones all but level with the first-floor windows, where here and there a dim light still seeps through the cracked and patched-up panes. The gate is standing open, and there are bull-dog lanterns on the far left side, close by what looks like the twisted stump of a stunted yew tree.
He can’t make out how many there are, but they’re expecting him, and one calls across in a voice he recognises. It’s Sam Wheeler—Cockney chipper and as quick as ginger. They worked together for six months out of St Giles station-house. It was Wheeler who’d taught Charles the ways of the London underworld, and Wheeler who’d been at his side the night Field first took him to Rats’ Castle and the rookeries.