Dickensian London in 1850 is the setting for this well-researched, densely written, and serpentine historical detective novel. The detective here is Charles Maddox, a former member of the Metropolitan Police who had been dismissed for insubordination for criticizing a senior officer whose incompetence led to an innocent man's hanging.
Now a private detective, Charles is commissioned by a powerful and unscrupulous lawyer to look into threatening letters sent to one of his clients. What seems like a fairly straightforward case turns into an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of crime. With the help of his uncle, a brilliant "thief taker" in his day but now in failing health and only occasionally his former self, Charles slowly uncovers plots within plots and nearly loses his life in the bargain.
The author, who earned a Doctorate in English from Oxford, was inspired to write this novel by Dickens' Bleak House, whose working title at one time was The Solitary House. Her fascination with the squalid, teeming London streets of that era are evident in her scrupulously detailed descriptions. Her previous book, Murder at Mansfield Park, which takes place a half-century earlier, was inspired by Jane Austen's work. One cautionary note: this novel is written for the most part in the third-person present tense and often speaks to the reader directly. It may take some readers a bit of time to adjust.