Friday 12 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 14: "A Study in Scarlet Women" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs
Rating: 4.5 stars

I keep struggling to summarise the plot in a good way, so I'll just let the blurb do it:

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. 

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

True fact, with the exception of a couple of extremely abridged and adapted easy reader short stories that we've used as examples of classics when teaching my pupils (which I doubt are really very representative of the real thing, as both the plot and the language have been simplified to an utterly ridiculous degree), I have never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I have watched both the Guy Ritchie directed movies, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. I watched the first three seasons of the BBC Sherlock, including the Christmas special, but steered clear of the disastrous fourth season, because the show's creators were clearly not taking the story or characters anywhere I was interested in going and life's just too short, you know? My husband and I have so far enjoyed the first five seasons of Elementary (or The Adventures of Mr. Elementary and Joan, as we like to refer to it, as its protagonists are quite a ways away from the original source material by now, and it's just another amusing TV procedural). I've read several YA books with teen sleuths inspired by Sir Conan Doyle's stories, and yet I have never felt the need to read one for myself. I find the concept of the Sherlock Holmes a lot more interesting and appealing than I suspect I would the actual character.

Now, Sherry Thomas, on the other hand, is an author whose career I've followed since she started publishing back in 2008. The only books of hers I haven't read by now are the last two in her YA Elementals trilogy, but I aim to get around to that too. So when she decided to stop writing excellent, if somewhat angsty historical romances, and decided to start gender flipping Sherlock Holmes, I knew I would have to read this books eventually.

For several months now, the pressures of my very time-consuming job and trying to cope with mothering a beautiful, cheerful, but absolutely demanding toddler has been wreaking havoc with my ability to concentrate. On bad days, I feel about two steps away from a complete burnout, and I seem to mostly just want to mindlessly scroll through social media on my phone, as it demands little to nothing of me. For most of my adult life, reading has been an escape and a means of relaxation for me, but since I returned to work in November, it's been hard to find the time, enthusiasm or energy for books. However, when I started the audio books for Ms. Thomas' Lady Sherlock books, I finished the existing three books in less than a week. I found myself making excuses, just so I could listen more and the books absolutely captivated me. As this is a rare feeling nowadays, it made me all the more grateful.

Now, having never read the actual source material, I can't compare it as a reimagining. I can just speak for what works remarkably well in Ms. Thomas' books.

All of the modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes (be it the ones set in actual Victorian times, like the movies, or in the modern era, like the TV shows) portray him as in some way neuroatypical. It seems likely, based on what we now know about the autism spectrum, that Sherlock Holmes is probably on it, if a very high functioning individual. Sherry Thomas' Charlotte Holmes is certainly not like other women of her era, and her portrayal fits into this same pattern. We are told that Charlotte didn't choose to speak until she was four years old, but when she did, it was to make a fairly astute deduction. Sherry Thomas has also chosen to give Charlotte Holmes an older sister, who is much more afflicted by ASD, and needs to be kept under constant supervision, as she cannot take care of herself. So neurodivergence is absolutely something of a theme in these stories.

When we meet our unusual heroine at the start of the book, she has just been publicly ruined and finds herself ostracised from polite society. Unwilling to deal with the scorn of her disappointed parents, Charlotte leaves home and tries to fend for herself. Her sister Livia worries terribly about her, and due to some uncharacteristic lapses in judgement, Charlotte almost finds herself desperate and destitute, when she makes the acquaintance of a widowed actress, Mrs John Watson, who is intrigued by her powers of deduction and observation and offers to hire her as a ladies' companion.

Even prior to her ruination, Charlotte had entertained herself by occasionally assisting the London Metropolitan Police with enquiries (aided by her longtime friend Lord Ingram), using the pseudonym Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to a series of murders being publicised in the press, the name of Sherlock Holmes has become well known, and Mrs. Watson proposes a clever scheme in which Charlotte can earn a living, without anyone discovering that she, a mere woman and publicly disgraced to boot, is in fact the master detective. The two women begin soliciting clients and meeting them in rented rooms, with Charlotte posing as the detective's sister (and Mrs. Watson occasionally pretending to be Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper), claiming that the great man himself has been struck down by an illness and has to remain bedridden. Charlotte goes into the bedroom next door and "consults" for a few minutes, and then helps the clients. The business savvy Mrs. Watson makes sure the clients pay a suitable fee for the consultation.

The high profile murder case in question is one Charlotte is most eager to help solve, as it casts suspicion on both her father (his mistress is one of the murder victims) and her sister Livia, who was one of the last people to see one of the other victim's alive, and they were witnessed having an argument. With some help from Lord Ingram (who is still unhappy that Charlotte will not accept his protection directly), Charlotte is able to advise Inspector Threadles, the man in charge of the investigation. It turns out to be a much more complicated and involved case than it seemed at the beginning, uncovering some truly horrific secrets and conspiracies to cover them up.

There is so much to love in these books. While Charlotte is frighteningly brilliant and her emotional register is not the same as those around her, she's by no means unfeeling and is in fact capable of great affection and feelings of loyalty. She just doesn't outwardly show a lot of emotion and processes things differently than others. Outwardly, she looks deeply frivolous and silly, with golden ringlets, a propensity for ribbons, ruffles and flounces and a love of food, especially sweet things. She loves to eat, but knows she cannot support "too many chins".

These books are so very feminist, with capable and very different women in so many roles. There's Charlotte, her sisters Livia and Bernadine, there's the excellent Mrs. Watson and there are women in more villainous roles. There's Inspector Threadles' wife, whose father is a wealthy industrialist, but who married "down" because she loves him. I doubt women feature much in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, except perhaps as victims, which is another reason why I'm in no rush to read any of them.

Adding to my enjoyment of this book was Kate Reading's pitch perfect narration. I've heard her narrate a number of historical romances in the past, and her arch and proper tones suit this sort of material so very well. A lot of audio book narrators struggle with a large cast of characters, but Ms. Reading manages to give each character a distinct and believable voice, be they male or female, and her narration is now how I hear all these characters in my head. I highly recommend the audio books if you haven't already checked this series out.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm a sucker for a good Victorian dress, and this impressive red one is especially lovely. There seems to be quite a trend of Victorian-set, lady-led mysteries with similar covers, I seem to recall the first book in the Veronica Speedwell series featuring another beautifully attired woman moving away from the reader.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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