All the Lonely People (1991) is set in early 1990s Liverpool, a place where the murky world of criminals closely intermingles with everyday life. Fiddling social security, domestic abuse, teenage antisocial behaviour, pollution and poverty are rife. At the centre of this is Harry Devlin, a duty solicitor, who spends his days protecting the interests of his clients, even if they are guilty or serial offenders. It is after such a day, tired and worn out, that Harry returns to his flat to find his wife waiting for him. What makes this unexpected is that they have been separated for 18 months, after she walked out on him for another man, Mick Coghlan, a man renowned for his criminal connections. Liz’s explanation for her return leaves more questions than answers. Is she really scared of Mick? Who is her new man? Why did she try to self-harm? But Harry gets no opportunity to solve these mysteries as the following evening Liz is found dead, stabbed multiple times. Shocked and stunned by the news, things only become worse for Harry, who appears to be the prime suspect for the police.
An interesting aspect of the police questioning and investigation is how Harry responds to it, as his experiences as a duty solicitor affect how he perceives and responds to it. He soon realises that the advice he gives to clients is easier to give than to take, despite being able to notice the different tactics the police use to question him. The police however leave Harry frustrated as to him the culprit appears obvious: Mick, a man Liz declared herself to be terrified of. The police remain unconvinced. Despite, her treatment of him, Harry is out for revenge and answers, seeking information from friends and enemies alike, ignoring kindly and less kindly advice to leave things well alone. Undeterred Harry finds out more and more about his wife and the men in her life and for him it becomes a question of which man did Liz drive to murder her. It is arguable that his career in defending the guilty feeds into his vengeful emotions and thoughts, as Harry knows all too well that the guilty are not always convicted and remain unpunished. As Harry’s pursuit continues, the body count increases, making him look even more suspicious to the police and as the novel comes to a close it remains to be seen what Harry will do to revenge his unfaithful wife’s death. With his most likely suspect avoiding arrest, leaving doubts in Harry’s mind as to his guilt, the reader is left wondering whether Harry will track the real murderer down and what he will do when he finally confronts them?
In such a story, the obvious narrative arc is that of a detective figure tracking down the killer, which is revealed at the end. Yet, in this novel there is another narrative taking place and that is Harry’s transformation. At the start of the novel he is a smoker, who is plagued by his persistent feelings for his wife, regardless of the way she has treated him. This leaves him unable to pursue another permanent romantic relationship, such as with his next door neighbour Brenda. Although, Liz’s murder shocks and upsets Harry extensively, fuelling his desire to find the killer, her death can also be seen as a release for him and as he continues his investigation into her death, it is as though she is being worked out of his system. So much so that when he finally discovers the mind behind the crime, you can see him sympathising with them. However, he is not the only one struggling with his relationships, as this is the case for the majority of the other characters; single women trying to find a decent man, married women trying to hold on to their crumbling marriages and single mothers with a string of unreliable boyfriends. Relationships are gritty in this novel, with people accepting the negatives of their relationships in order to avoid one thing: loneliness. Not only a pain reflected in the title of the novel, this is an emotional difficulty which riddles the entire novel, being an ever present fear for so many of the characters and is ultimately at the heart of the mystery.
Fitting in with the difficult lives of the characters, the humour of the novel is dark and sarcastic, such as after Harry has been attacked on his way home:
‘You all right?’ someone asked.
Fine, Harry thought, I bleed and vomit for fun.’
Harry’s job is an integral part of the story as it influences how innocence and guilt are portrayed. Moreover, I thought it was interesting to see how a lawyer who defends guilty people regards his own clients, which in the case of Harry is complex and oscillating. Furthermore, as his pursuit of Liz’s killer progresses there are points where he finds his position of defending the guilty more difficult. Though this of course does depend on the crime in question as Harry’s investigation is spurred on by information and assistance contributed by some of his past clients, which at points may leave him in a morally ambiguous position. With right and wrong not being black and white, with justice in the law courts being fickle and precarious, it is unsurprising that justice in Liz’s murder is executed along less conventional and more violent lines.
Rating: 4/5 (An engaging plot with an unexpected twist at the end, which makes you reconsider how you approached the rest of the book, the information you focused on, in comparison to the details you ignored.)