In the second book of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes (not to be confused with the Charlotte Holmes series, which also started in 2016 and also includes a book checked out to my Libby account right now) solves a fun, twisty mystery and flirts some more with Lord Ingram. If you haven’t read A Study in Scarlet Women, go do that before reading this review.
A Conspiracy in Belgravia serves as a worthy follow-up to the first book, which is fairly high praise around these parts, I think. It helps that it can dispense with all of the set-up in the first half of A Study in Scarlet Women, allowing us to jump into the mysteries relatively quickly. So if you liked the first one, you’ll probably like this one too. But: I have notes.
First, the characters deal early on in the book with the revelation that Lord Ingram orchestrated the meeting between Mrs. Watson and Charlotte in the previous book. On one hand, this helps to explain the serendipity of those two meeting right when Charlotte needed her the most, making Mrs. Watson less of a deus ex machina in Charlotte’s life. It brings a dash more realism to their introduction; I get that. But it still bugs me, because part of the appeal of this series for me is that these two ladies are busting out on their own as clever, resourceful thinkers in a time when society doesn’t want women to be like that, and it just rubs me the wrong way to have their friendship arranged by a man as a way to further characterize him as a romantic hero.
The reason that orchestration sticks out to me is because feminism is weaved into the story rather well otherwise. For example, Inspector Treadles is still grappling with his wife’s revelation that her life goal wasn’t always to be the best wife ever to him because she actually had some ambition of her own. He’s a good illustration of the benevolent sexist, the chivalrous type that thinks the best way to respect women is to protect them and who gets totally shaken when it turns out that women might actually be sentient people with complex interior lives. I’m interested to see where Thomas takes their story next.
“To be thought of as the perfect woman for a man isn’t a compliment to a woman, it’s more about how a man sees himself—and what he needs.”
I also have some apprehension over the way Thomas depicts Charlotte’s relationship with food. She is frequently described both as being a voracious eater and as having multiple chins. I guess her heightened appetite is supposed to be a replacement for classic Sherlock’s drug habits? If so, that’s weird, because food is necessary to live and drugs are not. I’m not sure entirely where I land on the subject, because on the one hand, diversity in size is great, and it’s not like her weight seems to affect Lord Ingram’s attraction to her; she’s still presented as a legitimate romantic lead, and other stories frequently treat overweight women much less kindly. But on the other hand, the other characters do comment on her voracious appetite, and not very flatteringly. I guess I just don’t understand why it needs to be mentioned all the time when women’s relationship with food and weight can be so fraught, and Thomas doesn’t treat it with the care I think it would require if she were trying to make some kind of statement about sizeism.
And my last note: I get rather complicated feelings when historical books present what feels to me to be anachronistic—the imposition of our values onto historical characters that probably wouldn’t have felt that way. I’ll try to be spoiler-free here: basically, one character comes out as gay to another character during maybe the second time they’ve spoken, and the second character responds with a level of nonchalance that would be much more common now than it would’ve been then. It reminded me of a similar attitude in the Phryne Fisher series (well, technically, the TV series, as I’ve only read the first book), in which Phryne is cool with whatever people want to do with their lives as long as they aren’t hurting anybody. Pretty much what I believe! But many, many fewer people thought as much in Phryne’s time—even if it was the Roaring Twenties—and even fewer thirty years earlier, in Charlotte’s time. That said, it’s not as if LGBT people didn’t exist then, and I don’t want to argue against the appearance of underrepresented groups in modern books just because they’re set in the past. I do appreciate that the character’s sexual identity is presented matter-of-factly and not as a salacious, scandalous secret. But I also can’t imagine a contemporarily written book in this same genre, such as an Agatha Christie novel, presenting a gay character in the same way. (Would be happy to be corrected, though a cursory Google search didn’t really contradict that thought, at least as it applies to Christie.) See what I mean about rather complicated feelings? As I was sorting through my thoughts on this subject (not for the first time), I came across Jezebel’s interview with Cat Sebastian, a novelist who writes Regency romances about queer characters, and she touches a bit on how she wants to be sensitive to both (1) the fact that LGBT people of the time would be fearing for their lives if they were outed and (2) the need for them to be presented as deserving their happy endings just as much as any other romantic lead would be. I haven’t read Sebastian’s books, but I’m guessing that she’d be able to explore the range of responses to her characters’ sexual identities more than a brief conversation in a mystery novel can.
Anyway, the more I’ve thought through it, the more I think that Thomas did a pretty decent job of making the conversation in A Conspiracy in Belgravia at least somewhat realistic, because the gay character sort of feels out the other character’s values first by bringing up LGBT people obliquely before confiding the truth. Still, it seemed like the characters barely knew each other before that conversation, and I guess I just question that the gay character would’ve opened up that quickly to a stranger.
Finally, Kate Reading continues to do great work as the audiobook narrator. She gives Charlotte a level of detachment when she speaks that really adds to my interpretation of the character. So much so that I had to pause Reading’s narration of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter an hour into the story and mentally extricate Charlotte’s personality traits from Mary Jekyll because I’d so closely associated her voice with A Study in Scarlet Women. (Does Reading’s narration work count as nominative determinism?)