Tom-All-Alone's is a very clever novel which takes Charles Dickens's Bleak House as its starting point. Charles Maddox is an ex-police officer struggling to make his way as a private detective after being unfairly dismissed from the force. Lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn approaches him with an apparently simple request to find out who has been sending threatening letters to a client of his. Maddox accepts but soon realises that the case is more complex than it seems and his headstrong urge to uncover the truth may put him in real danger.
As the title suggests, the book draws heavily on Bleak House but it isn't necessary to have read it, I don't think, in order to enjoy this one. For fans of Dickens there are numerous little nudges towards one of his greatest novel, characters passing through the narrative who you click your fingers at noticing. But Shepherd's own plot is fascinating, not just because it involves the mysterious Tulkinghorn. Maddox is an interesting character to follow around the dregs of London society but the most engaging portions of the novel, for me, came during his interactions with his ageing uncle, also a former detective who's gradually losing his grip on reality.
Shepherd's ability to bring the underbelly of Dickensian London to the fore is remarkable. There are several gruesome moments which I won't spoil but I will say that I had to continue reading just to distance myself from the scenes described - that's one way of pushing you to finish a book, although in this case I was eager to anyway.
The phrase that came back to me time and again as I was reading this was 'indecently clever'. That's certainly an apt description of Shepherd's powers to merge Bleak House (and other sources but I won't say what) with her own story. It manages to be both a homage to Dickens and an exceptional read in its own right. I honestly can't say more than that apart from that I highly recommend it.