Title: A Study in Scarlet Women
Author: Sherry Thomas
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Publication date: October 2016
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Lady Charlotte Holmes has always been a bit… different. As a child, Charlotte at first did not speak at all; when she did start talking, it was to make incredible observations (often to the discomfort of the subject being observed and to her mother, but much to the delight of her father). Also as a child, Charlotte made a pact with her papa–in return for a chance at freedom from marriage and financial aid such that Charlotte may pursue a career as a headmistress, Charlotte agreed to embrace her role as a young noblewoman, taking interest in fashion, small conversations, and other genteel activities. Though her beloved older sister Livia warns Charlotte that their father will likely reneg, it is a sliver of hope for both sisters–one day, they might escape home together and lead their own lives, happily free of society and expectation.
As the years pass, however, and Charlotte discovers that, just as Livia said, their papa never had any desire to honor their pact, she takes matters into her own hands. (That is, She decides to remove her maidenhead, since it’s the only bargaining chip left on the table of any interest to her parents.) Unfortunately, her daring plot to outwit her father and have her way goes disasterously awry, and Charlotte finds herself out of her home, out of society, and facing some rapidly shrinking funds and options.
But all is not lost–for Charlotte has long since worked under a different name. As Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte has aided Scotland Yard’s inspectors and has solved numerous crimes. When three different murders happen in quick succession, with all superficial signs pointing to Livia and the Holmes family as the likely perpetrators, Charlotte is quick to become Sherlock in full. With the generousity and help of one Mrs. John Watson–a widow and resourceful performer–as well as the stoic Lord Ingram and Investigator Teadles, Charlotte tackles her most desperate case yet…
I confess that when I started A Study In Scarlet Women, my epectations were very low. Sherlock retellings are a dime a dozen–from the small screen to the big screen, from YA adaptations to several “daughter of Sherlock” type spinoffs–so this reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes as a young woman doesn’t seem incredibly notable or nobel on its face. But then, I started to hear some good things about this particular reimagining–from both the romance community (in which Sherry Thomas is most well-known) and from other reviewers whose tastes I trust implicitly. And then I saw that book 2 was out just last month. And then I received a copy of this book in the mail. So, of course, I had to read it.
And you know what, dear readers? I am so very glad I did. Because A Study in Scarlet Women is one of the finest Sherlock reimaginings that I’ve ever consumed–many film and television adaptations included in that statement. Sherry Thomas takes an iconic and well-known (to the point of being tired) character, and manages to truly reinvent the Sherlock mythos and imbue it with excitement, intelligence, and feminism. This last point is the biggest and most unexpected draw to A Study in Scarlet Women–for it’s a novel that focuses not only on the circumstances of extraordinary women such as Charlotte Holmes, but also on those who lack incredible beauty, fortune, connection. Case in point: after Detective Treadles meets Charlotte for the first time, he reflects on her position in society and what options and expectations were available to such an extraordinary woman. His wife–with whom Treadles is very much in love, and who loves him back in turn–remarks that she would at least be treated as an average man, but her concern is more for perfectly ordinary women and how they are treated. It’s a point that takes Treadles–a well-meaning and kind man, but fully enmeshed in his own male privilege–aback. For the first time, he wonders about all that his wife may have given up and how her life and expectation may have been different, were she allowed to pursue her own passions.
It’s a sobering moment, and one that emphasizes the subversiveness of Thomas’s work on the smallest level. A Study In Scarlet Women follows many female characters–Charlotte and Mrs. Watson chief among them, but also housekeepers and maids with their own secrets and pasts, as well as high society ladies and elderly matrons. Thomas examines scarlet women from all walks of life, in various stages of their lives, using Charlotte as just one narrative to frame the larger, more pervasive and systemic problems of misogyny and agency in Victorian society. It’s damn impressive.
A Study In Scarlet Women is also an exceptionally well-written mystery novel–which is almost as unexpected as its powerful feminist framing. I mean this in the best possible way; of late, I’ve read several mysteries, heist stories, and capers that have been utterly entertaining but somewhat predictable in the actual mystery department. A Study In Scarlet Women examines three different characters’ deaths, tied together by tenuous circumstance (Charlotte, writing as Sherlock Holmes, is the one to unveil this tenuous connection). Is there a commonality to the deaths–if they weren’t just suicides or deaths of natural causes? And if there is a commonality beyond the superficial ties to Livia and Lord Holmes, is there something more sinister at play? The answer to both of these questions is of course yes–but getting to Charlotte’s triumphant understanding of all of the pieces and how they fit together is wholly unexpected and brilliant. By keeping close to the original source material in certain circumstances (the hansom cab, the strangers, the choice of death), Thomas skillfully tips her hat to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while simultaneously creating a feminist work that reinforces the brokenness of Holmes’s society, highlighting the divide between those who have power and resource, and those who do not.
This is to say nothing of the expert characterizations and relationships throughout the book. Charlotte Holmes as heroine is a complicated character, focused on survival but also on those she genuinely loves–even if she has a hard time expressing that love. The bond between Charlotte and her sister Livia, and that between Charlotte and her ersatz mother-sister figure Mrs. Watson are beautiful additions to the Holmes persona–instead of painting a Cumberbatchian superior sociopathic figure, Thomas’s “Sherlock” is a character who cares deeply for others, but perhaps does not fully understand social cues and chafes at the restrictions placed on her. Similarly, the reimagining of John Watson as a former performer and recent widow is brilliant, and I cannot wait to dive more fully into the relationship between these two women.
Long story short: I loved this book. Oh, I loved it a LOT. I cannot wait to devour book 2 very soon, and I urge everyone to read A Study in Scarlet Women as soon as possible.
Rating: 8 – Absolutely brilliant and leaning towards a 9