REVIEW: The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas
PLEASE NOTE: This review contains spoilers for previous books in the series.
Dear Ms. Thomas:
I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Lady Sherlock series, A Study in Scarlet Women and A Conspiracy in Belgravia, even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with the mysteries in those books. (I think I’m pretty basic as a mystery reader; I get confused fairly easily.) I was definitely excited when I heard that The Hollow of Fear was coming out.
The story opens with a prologue in which Charlotte Holmes presents herself to her illegitimate half-brother, Myron Finch, who has been masquerading as the Holmes family’s coachman. After a brief discussion regarding events of the previous book, she helps Finch escape agents of the dastardly Moriarty, the classic villain of the Sherlock Holmes series who remains somewhat opaque to me so far (since I’ve read little to none of Sherlock Holmes). Charlotte then apparently encounters Moriarty himself, for the first time, though the scene ends abruptly with their introduction.
The next chapter picks up several months later. Charlotte Holmes and Mrs. Watson are staying at a cottage in the country, near her friend Lord Ingram Ashburton’s country estate, Stern Hollow. When Charlotte’s sister Livia ends up at Stern Hollow as well (with a houseful of other guests; the home that they were visiting nearby had a catastrophic flooding problem), most of the series’ main characters are coincidentally in one place for a very gruesome discovery: Lord Ingram’s estranged wife, dead in Stern Hollow’s icehouse.
Readers of the series will know that Lady Ingram was involved in espionage (in the service of Moriarty), and that when Lord Ingram discovered her perfidy, he exiled her. The cover story is that she’s been in a Swiss sanatorium for her bad back, but some, including a couple of society sisters known as the Gossip Ladies, don’t quite believe that. It’s the Gossip Ladies along with Livia who discover Lady Ingram’s corpse. Immediately, Lord Ingram is a suspect in the murder, and Charlotte Holmes must get to work to save him from the hangman.
The local police quickly suss out that this case is too big for them, and call on Scotland Yard. Inspector Robert Treadles (who happens to be a friend of Lord Ingram’s) and his boss, Chief Inspector Fowler, arrive at Stern Hollow and begin to question the guests and staff.
Inspector Treadles is one of the major secondary characters of the series thus far. He had previously relied on Sherlock Holmes’ skills (using Lord Ingram as an intermediary), before he realized that Sherlock was Charlotte. Treadles has a probably historically accurate disgust of Charlotte, viewing her as an unnatural fallen woman. I have a corresponding entirely modern feminist lack of patience with Treadles, mixed in with a little sympathy. His world view is being challenged a lot – his wife has gone to work – and he’s having a hard time with it all.
Also showing up at Stern Hollow is a rotund, youngish man by the name of Sherrinford Holmes, who is of course Charlotte in disguise. Sherrinford is ostensibly Sherlock’s brother, and he’s been asked to help in the investigation on Lord Ingram’s behalf. He sets up in the unused nursery and begins his own inquiries.
There’s something very enjoyable and satisfying about returning to a mystery series that’s several books in; the characters are all there, familiar already, but the central story – the mystery – is presumably fresh. Ideally, individual mystery books in series both serve as semi-stand-alone stories while also advancing the continuing plot. In the case of this series, there are a number of threads that have been developing over the course of these three books. The most compelling is probably the relationship between Charlotte and Ingram, which makes some progress in this book (sort of). But there’s also some progress in the relationship between Inspector Treadles and his wife, as well as last minute developments in the relationship of Livia (who is coming into her own as a character) and the mysterious Stephen Marbleton.
Charlotte Holmes remains a challenging heroine in some respects. Her condition, presumably somewhere on the autism spectrum, means that she sometimes frustrates the people around her with her reaction, or lack thereof, to events. As a reader, I guess I share a bit of that frustration? Charlotte is lovable and sympathetic (as well as admirable) in her own way, but her very nature makes it hard to relate to her. But in some ways the challenge makes her a more rewarding character to follow through the series, as well.
I’ve devoted parts of my reviews to the previous books to detailing my confusion at the plots of those books. I feel like I did a little better with The Hollow of Fear? Maybe? I divide my understanding of the mystery loosely into to Who, How and Why. It helps me understand what I understand and what I don’t. I pretty much understood the Who (though there are some details I’m a little fuzzy on), and I think I get the Why (though I need to think about it kind of hard to get it straight). The How gets away from me, because there are various people involved and bodies being moved and locks that are changed for mysterious but significant reasons. I end up having trouble keeping things straight. It doesn’t help that facts and occurrences are kept from the reader when they occur (even though they involve the main characters) and only revealed at the end. I understand that as a dramatic choice, but again, it increased my confusion at times.
Overall, The Hollow of Fear is a solid entry into the series that advances the character development and leaves me anticipating book four. My grade is a B+.