I have never actually read an original Sherlock Holmes novel or story. I think we read a children’s version of The Hound of Baskerville at one point but it was definitely a simplified version since it was in 6th grade, during our second year of English language instruction at my German school (I of course was already fluent but it’s not like there was an alternative course I could have taken so it made more sense for me to just be in the class with the rest of my class mates). I have, however, seen the Robert Downey Junior movies (eh), watched a few seasons of Elementary and lots of Star Trek:TNG and read a few of the novels in the Laurie King series that started with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which I unfortunately lost interest in rather quickly because the character both wasn’t as smart as she thought she was and the age difference was too much for me when that series turned to straight up romance between Sherlock and the apprentice. Basically, despite having never interacted with the original literature, I have dabbled with retellings and know the pop culture references, and have to say this is one of my favorite takes one Sherlock Holmes that I have seen!
Charlotte Holmes is the youngest of four daughters and the most unconventional though only the eldest daughter turned out anything like Lady Holmes to their mother’s regret. The second eldest has a disability of some type, the third daughter has had seven seasons and no suitors, while Charlotte keeps turning all of hers down and has been caught in the act with a married man as this novel starts. It turns out this was actually all part of Charlotte’s plan to gain her independence though certain parts fell out of her control. After the scandal, Charlotte would rather attempt to live on her own and work than be banished to the countryside so with the support of her beloved sister Livia, she runs off to a boarding house and tries to find work.
Before the scandal, Charlotte had already dabbled in police work with the help of her childhood friend Lord Ingram under the pseudonym Sherlock Holmes. After her failed paramour’s mother dies, gossip abounds that Livia had visited Lady Shrewbury and yelled at her about her role in Charlotte’s downfall right before her death – after all, when Lady Shrewbury found out her son was planning on having a dalliance with an unmarried woman, her response was to walk in on it with an audience rather than prevent it or handle it quietly. Fortunately, Charlotte notices some oddities about Lady Shrewsbury’s death, and sends off a note to the paper as Sherlock Holmes, linking three deaths together as suspicious and clearing Livia’s name. Inspector Treadles, friend of Lord Ingram, had previously consulted Sherlock Holmes by letter, and is more than happy to pursue his lead to find a motive and a murderer.
While I quite liked the resolution of the case and both the complexity of the mystery and the logic behind the final reveal, the real reason I think I enjoyed this retelling so much was due to the characters. Charlotte grew up as the intelligent one with a plan so seeing her actually deal with real set backs and realize how privileged and protected she has been was very interesting, and also something that would not have occurred if the gender hadn’t been reversed. I liked her relationship with Livia as well. While I can’t say I liked the Holmes parents, they absolutely felt like a dark version of the Bennetts from Pride and Prejudice. The mother is worried about status and marrying off her daughters, they don’t have as much money as expected, the father certainly seems to think he married beneath his intelligence, and has a favorite daughter he dotes on. It was interesting seeing something so similar but taken just a bit farther to show how poisoned the relationship between the Bennetts could have been if each parent had been just slightly more prone to resentment rather than bemused tolerance, and less concerned for their daughters. Finally though, it was this novel’s version of Watson, or the widowed Mrs. John Watson, that really did it for me! She ends up being a savior or benefactress to Charlotte, and while Charlotte has amazing mental capabilities, I liked that Mrs. Watson ended up being an older woman who takes Charlotte under her wing. In the shows and movies at least, it is always made clear that Watson is the lesser partner, and I felt like they were absolutely equals in this novel, well matched with different strengths. Really, Charlotte may sometimes be aloof but she doesn’t come across as condescending at all while retellings centered around a male Sherlock do tend to give him a superiority complex.