A Study in Scarlet Women – Sherry Thomas

Sherlock Holmes is kind of like a chocolate chip cookie. There’s a basic recipe which has been around forever and which everyone loves. (Well, I don’t love the original, but work with me here.) And people can never, ever resist taking that basic original recipe and playing with it – there are hundreds of variations. Some add ingredients – here’s Sherlock Homes vs. Jack the Ripper. Some swap out one kind of chip for another – Watson’s a woman! Some go gluten-free or dairy-free or sugar-free – Holmes in the 21st century. And some change the focus to one flavor or another – Mrs. Hudson is the main character, or Irene Adler. (Some add nuts – “I’m a high-functioning sociopath”…)

Here, though, Sherry Thomas takes the basic recipe, pulls it apart, and puts it back together again (with some new additions) so that I don’t even know what to do with the metaphor: Sherlock Holmes is actually Charlotte Holmes, disgraced noblewoman.

The book didn’t start well. Charlotte’s disgrace comes about because she is tired of the nuisance of her parents’ constant attempts to push her into the marriage market. Uninterested, wishing to spend her time as she likes, she makes herself ineligible for a good marriage via a plan which is coolly and logically thought out – and which made my jaw drop with its sheer stupidity.

‘Course, it might not have been so dumb if things had gone to plan. She is taken by surprise, and in such a way that her life could never be what it was – which was a bit ironic, since one of her motivations in taking a step to avoid marriage was to continue on much as she had. But with a violent father and a reputation in tatters, she was forced to strike off on her own. Unfortunately, she had no saleable skills, little money, and that soiled reputation, and she floundered, until she had an encounter with a woman who would change her life.

One drawback, for me at least, to this kind of retelling is that I keep looking for all the landmarks of the original tale. The description of Charlotte as resembling “a foreigner who found native customs baffling and, on occasion, patently ridiculous” rang true. Oh, look – Baker Street. Ah, Watson. “My niece… moved to Paris to study medicine” – hmmm … Doctor Watson? I find it detracts from the story I’m actually reading when I can’t stop tracking it against others.

I made a note in the middle somewhere that Charlotte’s crutch is food, rather than the cocaine Holmes relies upon. And I’m trying to decide whether that works or not. Doyle foresaw the same sort of problem rock stars have faced since touring became a thing – once the high of performance, the constant work and activity, instant feedback, cheering crowds, noise and energy is ended for the time being, it leaves a craving, and without more work on hand the only recourse seems to be drugs. Holmes injects a seven-percent solution to compensate – and Charlotte sits down to tea. “The butter disappeared into the soft, spongy interior of the warm roll. Such a sight had always comforted Charlotte before—and turned her mind blissfully empty when she bit into it.” (I’ll give you a moment to cool off from such explicit food porn. Fan yourself. Go get a roll of your own if you have to. Or a chocolate chip cookie.) Was it this kind of oblivion that Holmes looked for in the ampoule? But sugar and cholesterol are not very beneficial to thought processes …

The writing was not entirely reliable. There were a few moments I stopped to look at a word used in a way I did not expect (example: “You will regret it relentlessly” just doesn’t seem correct). The main annoyance I found, though, was an odd recurrence of “and how”. This is a phrase I associate with kids of the fifties and sixties – think Opie Taylor. Yet here is the tale of a young lady of late 1800’s London, and … “Charlotte never thought she’d salivate over a cup of tea—and how.” (According to Merriam Webster the first known use was 1865; another website says 1924 and calls it an Americanism. Not to disparage Merriam Webster, but I’m with phrases.org on this one.)

So … I don’t know. It was an entertaining take on the Holmes legend, but it was jarring in some ways to try to fit the two together. I enjoyed it, mostly … but I’m not rushing out to get the rest of the series. We’ll see.

And in case you’re wondering, as I did, the Wheatstone machine was an early telegraph. Which was kind of obvious in context.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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