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Queering Dr. Watson: Sexual Identity in The Angel of the Crows

Katherine Addison, the author of award-winning The Goblin Emperor, has a new fantasy novel out, a dark Fantasy that is mash-up of Jack the Ripper and the detectives of Baker Street. We have a guest post from the author today, talking about the work, and its queer characters.

SPOILER ALERT: Dr. J. H. Doyle is not what you think.

I am not the first writer to notice that you can use a first-person narrator to play games with sex and gender roles. Emma Bull (Bone Dance) and Sarah Caudwell (The Shortest Way to Hades), to name two off the top of my head, do a great job of using first-person to keep their narrators’ sexual identities in question. I followed suit in The Angel of the Crows.

I did this partly, let’s be honest, because it was fun. It was fun to write Doyle as someone with a secret (well, with several secrets), and it was fun to write the people around Doyle reacting to the projected image and to know that they were wrong. You’ll notice that Crow never uses a pronoun when talking about Doyle, because Crow knows from the beginning that Doyle’s biological sex and performed gender do not match, and understands human society enough to know that it has to be a secret.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are very much a product of their time. As such, they are sexist, classist, and racist, with white (English) professional-class men representing the pinnacle of human evolution. They are also profoundly homosocial, since the relationship between Holmes and Watson is the (generally unspoken, except for that once in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”) foundation on which all the stories are built. Men’s relationships are paramount, and I can’t think of a story that even has a scene where you could try to apply the Bechdel Test. One reason Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia” is such a brilliant creation is that she is the protagonist; she is the one who beats Holmes at his own game (and cross-dresses successfully to tweak him). But Irene is an exception, recognized explicitly as such (“To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.”); she exists in a category of one.

It is possible to recognize these things about the stories and still love them.

But the temptation to subvert is very strong.

In The Angel of the Crows, I made Holmes into an angel, which, as we learn later in the novel, means that he is both asexual and technically female and puts him solidly in the professional class of the novel’s London (insofar as angels fit into any human class system at all), looking for someone to go halves on the rent of a flat in Baker Street.

Which brings us to Dr. Watson and Dr. Doyle. Watson in the original stories is the perfect professional-class representative homosocial heteronormative (Scots-)Englishman, the perfect foil for Holmes’s brilliant intellect and sharp wit. (I don’t know if the text really supports the reading that Watson is deliberately down-playing his own intelligence to make Holmes look even better, but I hope it does because otherwise you start wondering about how he made it through medical school.) And what I wanted to do in The Angel of the Crows was to present that façade but have something quite different going on beneath it.

The question of Doyle’s sexual identity is a vexed one. You can read Doyle as a trans man, although that term is completely unavailable to the characters, or you can read Doyle as a transvestite lesbian. Or you can read Doyle as profoundly genderqueer (also a term not available to the characters). You notice I’m trying hard not to use pronouns, and that’s because I don’t want to invalidate any of those readings. It’s important, because names in this book are so thematically significant, that Doyle considers Joanna his/her/their real name—that Doyle has in fact consistently refused to choose a different name, going only by initials. Doyle and I can get away with this because in the closed homosocial world of Victorian professional-class men, no one ever refers to anyone except by his surname anyway. Never once does Holmes call Watson “John” and the only person who calls Holmes “Sherlock” is his brother Mycroft. (We never learn Lestrade’s given name, either.) But beyond the choice to hold onto the given name, I can’t go. I truthfully do not know how Doyle gender-identifies. Which is no impediment to a first-person narrative, but does make it hard to talk about.

Both Doyle and Crow are performing Victorian normative masculinity, but neither one of them fits it. In a way, they’re playing dress-up as Holmes and Watson, but in so doing, they make a friendship that is genuine. I’m suggesting, I think—I hope—that the roles of Holmes and Watson, Detective and Sidekick, are available to anyone who wants to play, that the archetype is strong enough to withstand as many re-imaginings as we can come up with.

The friendship has to be real. That’s the part that matters.

KATHERINE ADDISON’s short fiction has been selected by The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She is the author of the Locus Award-winning novel The Goblin Emperor. As Sarah Monette, she is the author of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series and co-author, with Elizabeth Bear, of the Iskryne series. She lives near Madison, Wisconsin.

The Angel of the Crows is out now.

8 Comments

  • tanita
    June 30, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for this – this book is lovely and brilliant and I gulped it down in nearly a single sitting and wished for more. I said, “HAH!” really loudly when I got to the plot twist – it was a whole surprise, and then not… anyway, excellent stuff.

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