This remix of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is clever and ingenious. It’s a fun read with interesting and sympathetic characters, most notably a female Sherlock Holmes. Sherry Thomas does an amazing job of reimagining this classic. Those familiar with Doyle’s first Holmes mystery will recognize certain traits of Sherlock and plot points in common, but this is a story with something original to say about women, class, justice and independence. It’s also a fine mystery.
Charlotte Holmes is about 25 years old in 1886. She is from a society family, one of the Upper Ten Thousand, but like many such families, finances are problematic. Eldest sister Henrietta is respectably married, but Bernadine has an intellectual disability (most likely meant to be autism) that renders her speechless and isolated, spinning tops and other objects while lost in her own world. Livia is in her upper 20s and still single, and Charlotte, well, she is quite unusual. She barely spoke as a child, and when she finally did, her observations were shockingly astute and perceptive, much to her father’s delight. Charlotte, socially awkward and fond of food, does not care at all for society and its rules and formalities. Livia, her friend as well as her sister, thinks that Charlotte behaves like “a foreigner who found native customs baffling and, on occasion, patently ridiculous.” She is like “an interplanetary alien,” which makes it seem to me as if Charlotte has Asperger syndrome. She has an incredible memory and a mind for detail which will serve her well.
Charlotte has zero interest in marriage; she would much rather get an education and become a headmistress. Her father Henry made a deal with her when she was 13 to try out the life of a socialite first, and if it really didn’t agree with her, after a number of years, he would pay for her education. Charlotte accepted the deal and turned herself into a socially able, fashion conscious young woman, who also happens to be incredibly good looking. Several marriage proposals come her way, which she rejects. When Henry reneges on his deal with her, Charlotte devises a plan to make herself an unattractive marriage prospect and force her father to pay for schooling. The plan only sort of works, and Charlotte becomes a social pariah and runaway.
Charlotte is resourceful and does have some people in her corner. Livia does her best to help, but is now watched very carefully by her parents. Lord Ingram Ashburton is another friend whose past relationship with Charlotte is unraveled slowly throughout the story. Ingram, a good friend of Inspector Treadle of the Metropolitan Police, has acted as an intermediary between Treadle and Charlotte/Sherlock for some time. Sherlock has, via letter, helped Treadle solve crimes, but now that Charlotte is out on her own, hiding from those she has known, Sherlock is MIA. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time, as several mysterious and unexpected deaths have rocked London’s upper class and implicate Charlotte’s family to boot!
Sherry Thomas does a great job showing just how difficult and unfair life was for women of all classes. Men, particularly upper class men, were allowed to engage in all kinds of sordid behavior with very little in the way of repercussions. The same was not true for women, even wealthy women. Through the murders and Charlotte’s wanderings around London, Sherry Thomas gives readers a glimpse of how tough it was for women of the working classes, particularly since they were often at the mercy of the men they worked for. The options for a woman who wanted or needed to work were limited, and if sullied, a woman’s reputation could permanently bar her from employment and support. Moreover, women did not necessarily support their sisters against this inherently unfair system. Upper class women revel in obtaining and disseminating gossip; it is a type of power-brokering, allowing them to assert authority in an otherwise powerless sort of life. They help police their ranks and have no interest in upending the social order.
While the unraveling of the murders was well done and quite clever, I think my favorite part of this book is the development of Watson, which I won’t describe because you should just read it. I love Watson. And the relationship between Charlotte and Ingram fascinates me and promises to be good fun to watch in the series as it moves forward. Charlotte/Sherlock is just a great character. She’s resourceful, businesslike, in every way equal or superior to the men she has to deal with, and they know it. Some can’t handle it. I think I prefer her to Doyle’s Sherlock, and I can’t wait to read more of this series.