REVIEW: The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas
Disclosure: Sherry Thomas is my friend and critique partner and I critiqued this manuscript. — Janine
Dear Ms. Thomas:
In preparation for this review I reread my reviews of the previous three books in the series – I gave book one a B- and books two and three each a B+. The common thread running through all three reviews is the fact that I find these mysteries confusing. There are probably several reasons for this – one is that I’m not a regular mystery reader. Another, which I think just became clear to me with this book, is that there’s a very deliberate choice to withhold information from the reader, often by cutting away from a scene just as that vital information is to be revealed. Anyway, by this, the fourth book, I have come to expect that understanding everything that’s happening – or even that happened, in the end – may not be in the cards for me. The strength of the series lies in other directions.
For the uninitiated, a brief rundown: in the Lady Sherlock series, the nonexistent Sherlock Holmes is the front for Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant, eccentric young lady who fell into the role of solving mysteries after running away from home and being ruined. Other major players include: Charlotte’s neurotic but loving sister Livia, who is almost on the shelf and stuck at home with their unloving parents; Lord Ingram Ashburton, Charlotte’s childhood friend with whom she has unresolved romantic tension; and Charlotte’s own Watson, Mrs. Watson, who provides both a home for Charlotte and invaluable assistance on her cases.
The story kicks off when a woman comes to visit Sherlock Holmes, seeking help. Charlotte greets her with the conceit that she is Sherlock Holmes’ sister, and that her brother is physically incapacitated and unable to have visitors, but is observing the conversation from a private room via a camera obscura. Charlotte deduces that the woman is the Maharani of Ajmer, head of a delegation from India that has recently arrive in London. The maharani is extremely disappointed to realize that “Sherlock” will not be able to help with her task, which does not require his deductive powers as much as it does the services of a cat burglar, or someone else suited for retrieving things surreptitiously. The maharani departs, but not before sharing with Charlotte her suspicions that Charlotte herself is Sherlock.
Shortly after, Mrs. Watson returns from a trip to Paris, and finds herself with an unexpected caller – the maharani. It turns out the two knew each other years before, and were in fact lovers. The maharani does not appear to know about the connection between Charlotte and Mrs. Watson, and after a stilted conversation, she leaves. It’s Charlotte who, learning of the visit, informs Mrs. Watson that the maharani had been to see Sherlock Holmes, seeking help. Mrs. Watson is distraught at the idea that her old friend is in some sort of trouble, and wants to help her. Charlotte demurs at first – for one thing, it would require confirming the maharani’s suspicions that Charlotte is in fact Sherlock – but in the face of Mrs. Watson’s distress, she agrees.
The maharani is wary of accepting help, but after Charlotte adequately proves her skills, she relents. She tells them that there are some sensitive letters that, it’s implied, were stolen from her. She has been told the letters are hidden in the backing of a Van Dyck painting that has been shipped to a chateau in France for private auction.
That home, called Chateau Vaudrieu, hosts an annual Christmas ball that is famously extravagant. The ball is held in conjunction with the art sale. Charlotte’s sister Livia happens to be staying with her, and it’s determined that Charlotte, Livia, Lord Ingram (who also has a connection to Mrs. Watson) and Mrs. Watson will travel to Paris to try to implement a plan to steal the Van Dyck. Rounding out the party is Mr. Stephen Marbleton, who is Livia’s suitor. Stephen is related to the dastardly Holmesian villain Moriarty; he and his family have been in hiding and on the run for years from Moriarty.
The group travels to France and Charlotte meets up with an ally of Lord Ingram’s, Lieutenant Atwood, who Lord Ingram has recruited to help with the theft. The plan is almost halted by Mrs. Watson after a reconnaissance mission at Chateau Vaudrieu endangers the lives of Lord Ingram and Stephen Marbleton. A meeting between the maharani, Charlotte and Mrs. Watson leads to some revelations about the contents of the mysterious letters, and later all parties involved affirm that they wish to go forward with the plan despite the risks.
The mystery/caper plot took a while to get going. I like Mrs. Watson very much, but her fondness for the maharani wasn’t enough to make me care about the latter woman’s problems. The maharani herself is a bit of a cold fish, imperious (as one might expect) and rigid. More interesting was the developing relationship between Livia and Stephen Marbleton.
Livia is very enamored but hesitant to commit to Stephen for a couple of reasons. One is that a life with him will likely mean a life in hiding, avoiding Moriarty’s long and sinister reach. (For this reason, Charlotte disapproves of the connection, though only in her typically detached way.) Another is that Livia is damaged by her upbringing with a cold and critical mother, and in her insecurity she has trouble believing Stephen really wants her. Still, it’s a sweet romance to watch blossom; Stephen is young and exceptionally good-natured in spite of his difficult life.
The relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ashburton is more bittersweet. They consummated their relationship in the previous book, and Charlotte almost idly wonders here and there whether there will be a repeat. But most of Ash’s thoughts about Charlotte aren’t really excessively carnal in nature. There is a wistful romanticism in the way he views her, and in the way that his wishes and expectations are continually thwarted by Charlotte’s emotional limitations. It was an interesting and unusual relationship to read about, though it also made me a little sad.
Around two-thirds into the book, the mystery plot really started to ramp up, and I was briefly absorbed in it. I soon became frustrated. In spite of saying I’ve gotten used to not knowing what was going on, I found myself annoyed that, well, I didn’t know what was going on. There’s a reception at the chateau ahead of the ball and auction, and all of Charlotte’s crew (I should resist the impulse to call it her Scooby Gang, shouldn’t I?) are there in various disguises, except for Lord Ashburton, who is crawling through some tunnels. I felt, as I often do with this series, that I should be understanding the action better than I actually was. I had the sense that I was about two steps behind the characters, and it made me anxious.
A bit later, something else started to bug me; I don’t remember if I’ve had this experience with the previous books in the series or not. It’s that Charlotte comes to conclusions that seem…possible, but not necessarily something she could reasonably have figured out and be certain of, even given her cleverness. Maybe it goes back to the fact – I *have* mentioned this in reviews of previous books – that I really need to have things spelled out for me. Charlotte gets from point A to point L, and I have no idea how she got there or how she’s sure she’s right. (To be fair, there are times in this book when she’s not sure she’s right. On the other hand, she always does end up being right.)
I know we’re supposed see Charlotte as brilliant, but I think that would work better for me if I understood better *how* she’s brilliant.
There are some coincidences (at least I think they were coincidences?) that didn’t hold up under close scrutiny, either. What are the odds that the maharani’s visit to Sherlock Holmes would
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
While The Art of Theft advanced the overarching plot (at least in regard to the relationships between Livia and Marbleton and between Charlotte and Ash), the central plot wasn’t the strongest of the four books in the series. My grade for this one is a B-.