Book Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
“With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.”
This is definitely a What If book. What If Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes was actually a woman? The rest of the book flows from that premise.
I am a lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan. Seriously, I’ve read and watched ’em all. And in this new addition to the Sherlockian multiverse, all my favorite characters from the series make their reimagined appearance. There’s Lady Holmes, but also a new Watson and Mrs. Hudson. A new version of the inspector, a bare hint of archenemy Moriarty, and an intriguing Mycroft-based character who promises to play a larger role in the sequel.
A Study in Scarlet Women is also one of the few books I’ve read told from the perspective of Holmes, rather than the average-minded Watson. Here, though, we get an inexperienced Holmes, trying to break into the detective business in a world that is not forgiving to women who try to make their respectable, independent way in it. She is also liable to make terrible, silly mistakes when the world – and people! – do not conform to her logical expectations of them.
Where Holmes is concerned, book includes a light romantic subplot too, but avoids some of the more obvious traps. Even at her most desperate moments, Charlotte Holmes does not want or need anyone to sweep in and save her, and I enjoyed how the story navigated Holmes’ sharp independent streak with the need to have an alpha manly-man who helps and defends the heroine. A clever solution appeared without diminishing the personalities involved, a delicate balance I’ve seen Sherry Thomas manage again and again in her novels.
Over the years, Holmes has been reinvented in all sorts of ways, from his stint as a medical doctor on House to his brief appearances as a lizard woman on Doctor Who. This is my first dive into a world where the store isn’t merely told from the perspective of a woman in Sherlock Holmes’ life a la Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell or Martin Davies’ Mrs. Hudson, but as a straight-on gender bender.
Still, what makes this book interesting is also what ties its hands. Though she has a brilliant, deductive mind, social mores and her own identity as a lady constrain what Charlotte Holmes can do, preventing her from visiting crime scenes and limiting how she can interact with the world. For this book, this also meant that the good (and rather boring) inspector ended up taking on a larger investigative role – a change from his usual depiction in these stories as bumbling along rather uselessly while Holmes solves the cases for him. This had the unintended side effect of having the reader sit through a lot of interviewing and summarizing over the course of the investigation – a rather slow-paced untangling of the mystery that had me impatient to be done with it and back in scenes of Charlotte Holmes’ struggles and machinations.
For me, the story succeeds more as a gender bender thought experiment than as a great mystery. I know author Sherry Thomas from her romance novels, and was expecting this retelling to be more of the enjoyable same. But the story is not romance enough to appeal to romance fans, and not mystery enough to bring in the hardcore mystery crowd. It straddles the two worlds, and a little uneasily at that.
Ms. Homes big advantage in the story is the group of strong-minded friends who rally around her and who believe in her ability and right to make her own way in the world. Perhaps, with their support, she will find ways to be more hands-on in future cases, or find future cases closer to the propriety of the upper echelons of home.
(An interesting thought experiment!)
Book copy received from the publisher.