Desert Isle Keeper
A Study in Scarlet Women
I admit that when I heard that Sherry Thomas, one of my favourite and without doubt one of the finest authors of Historical Romance currently writing was going to be shifting genres and embarking on a series of Historical Mysteries, my first thought was to go and curl up in the corner with a box of Kleenex. That was a fairly fleeting thought, however, as I know I’d probably read Ms. Thomas’ shopping lists; and given that I adored her YA Elementals Trilogy, I knew, deep down, that she would ace whatever she turned her hand to. And she has. A Study in Scarlet Women, the first book in her new Lady Sherlock series is a terrific read; well-plotted, brilliantly characterised and retaining enough of the characteristics of Conan Doyle’s original to be recognisable while adding more layers and facets to her protagonist to make her a completely plausible woman of her time.
Charlotte Holmes, youngest of four sisters, has always been a little… odd. As a child, she rarely spoke unless she had something to say, she liked her own company and her ability to observe and reach startlingly accurate conclusions was somewhat unnerving. Her father found her entertaining –
Charlotte was his pet – he was vastly amused by her combination of great intelligence, great oddity and great silence
– while her domineering mother despaired of her ever becoming all that a proper young lady should be. As Charlotte grew older, she began to realise that she was different and understand what it was that set her apart from others, so she began to employ learned behaviours when they didn’t come naturally to her, such as comforting her sister Olivia (Livia) – to whom she is closest – when she was upset or depressed, and making the effort to turn herself into the fashion plate her mother wanted her to be. On the outside, Charlotte is the ideal of Victorian womanhood – pretty, petite and curvaceous with blonde ringlets, big blue eyes and charming dimples. The inside, however, is another matter entirely:
– the Good Lord went to ridiculous lengths to make sure that one of the finest minds in existence was housed in a body least likely to be suspected of it.
Charlotte made her intention never to marry quite clear to her father when she told him that she wanted to pursue a career as headmistress of a girls’ school. Naturally, he said she was too young to make such a decision and that she should wait a few years, but Charlotte has never wavered from that choice. As the story begins, however, Sir Henry Holmes’ not unexpected reneging on his promise to fund Charlotte’s training forces her to take drastic measures, and she purposely gets herself ruined by a married man (because he could not be forced to marry her to restore her reputation), as a way of rebelling and of making sure she can’t be married off to an eligible parti. Unfortunately, however, her choice of swain was not her best decision; in a drunken stupor the previous evening, he disclosed his plans to his wife, ensuring that she and her mother interrupt his tryst with Charlotte at a sensitive moment. Now, Charlotte is not only ruined for marriage, she is publicly disgraced, at the centre of a huge scandal and facing the prospect of spending the rest of her life shut away in obscurity in the country.
That is absolutely NOT part of Charlotte’s plan, so she runs away, secure in the knowledge that she will be able to secure employment as a secretary or typist. Her only real regret is leaving behind her sister, Livia, who is emotionally fragile and prone to depression, a young woman who dislikes society yet fears being alone, and who is, apart from one other, the only person Charlotte really relates to strongly and cares for.
Charlotte may be brilliant, but she is still a woman and has to contend with the social conventions that are so strictly applied to her sex. When the lady running the boarding house at which she is staying discovers Charlotte’s true identity (she had registered under a false name) she is asked to leave, and with no letters of reference or qualifications, she has been unable to secure employment. Her meagre funds are running out and she is faced with the prospect of living on the streets or having to go back home; and she is at a low ebb when she encounters an older, flamboyant lady with whom she feels an almost instant connection. This is, of course, Mrs. John Watson, a former actress and the widow of an army officer who perished in Afghanistan some years earlier.
That’s Charlotte and her story so far, but while all this is going on, other characters are being introduced and plotlines laid. Not long after Charlotte’s disgrace, the mother of her lover is found dead, and because Livia had publicly accused the woman of ruining her sister, suspicion falls upon her. Then there is the matter of the sudden death of Lady Amelia Drummond, the lady to whom Sir Henry had been engaged before he married his wife and with whom Sir Henry had quarrelled on the evening before her demise. Add in the recent death of Mr Harrington Sackville of Devon… the game is afoot and the famous, reclusive detective Sherlock Holmes is on the case. But how effective can he be when it seems he has taken to his bed with a serious illness and can be consulted only via his sister?
Inspector Treadles (*grin*) of Scotland Yard is rather disappointed at this news, as he has had some experience of working with Holmes in the past – not in person, but through his friend, renowned archaeologist Lord Ingram Ashburton – and had hoped do so again. But Lord Ingram is not sanguine about Holmes’ recovery, although he does agree to seek his help on Treadles’ behalf after Holmes declares that the deaths of Lady Amelia, Mr Sackville and Lady Shrewsbury are related.
And this brings me to one big difference between the original Sherlock and this new female incarnation of him. While Holmes – the male version – is asexual, Charlotte is not. In fact, it’s very clear from the beginning of the book that she and Lord Ingram are in love, and probably have been since they were children.
Some people never meet the right person in life. They, on the other hand, met when they were too young to realize what they had found in each other. And when they did at last see the light, it was too late.
For he is married – very unhappily – and far too honourable to do what many men in his position would have done and seek pleasure and companionship elsewhere. In fact, he and Charlotte don’t even meet face-to-face until about half-way through the book, but when they do, the chemistry between them is explosive. Obviously, as this novel is predominantly a mystery, any romantic aspects take a back seat, but when an author writes two characters with such a strong, deep connection, it’s impossible not to want the relationship to go somewhere and to wonder how Ms. Thomas is going to surmount the obvious obstacles she has thrown in its path.
A Study in Scarlet Women is a terrific way to kick off this new series. The pacing is excellent, the characters are superbly drawn and the mystery is intriguing and suitably complex without being completely impenetrable; but the real highlight is the way Ms. Thomas so brilliantly introduces her main characters throughout the first half of the story without subjecting the reader to info-dumps and improbable coincidences. It’s a masterclass in How To Do It Right. The whole thing evolves organically, from the descriptions of Charlotte’s obviously dysfunctional family and the far-reaching effects of their parents’ strained marriage on her and her sisters, to the gradual deepening of the mystery and its eventual solution. My only criticism – which isn’t really a criticism, as it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book – is that much of the leg-work regarding the mystery is done by Inspector Lestrade Treadles and his team, so Charlotte is, of necessity, ‘off screen’. That said, it’s absolutely correct given that she’s a woman and couldn’t have taken part in a police investigation, even if Treadles had known her identity. A lesser author would probably have had her in the thick of it, but Sherry Thomas is someone who takes things like historical accuracy seriously and who is more than good enough at what she does to be able to have her heroine observing the conventions of the day even as she pursues her unconventional career. The reason for the A- and not a straight A is because of the convenience of the fact that two of Charlotte’s immediate family are in the frame for the murders – otherwise, I’ve no complaints.
The novel ends with some tantalising glimpses of what might be to come, with hints at some of the less orthodox occupations of an aristocratic archaeologist, the establishment of a possible arch enemy and the introduction of Lord Bancroft Ashburton (one of Ingram’s brothers), who looks set to play a similar role to that of Mycroft Holmes. A Study in Scarlet Women probably isn’t one for Holmes purists, but for those of us who like a determined, unconventional heroine, a decent mystery in an historical setting and who are prepared to nod and smile at the in-jokes and references, then my recommendation is, well, Elementary.