REVIEW: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
Dear Ms. Thomas:
I know very little about Sherlock Holmes – I know of the pipe and the deerstalker cap, I’ve heard the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”, and I know that Sherlock was an influential archtype in the development of the modern detective in fiction. I *think* I read The Hound of the Baskervilles in high school, but I remember nothing about it.
All this prefacing is to say that I may not be the ideal audience for an homage to Sherlock Holmes. That said, let’s get started; A Study in Scarlet Women begins with a brief prologue:
Had anyone told the Honorable Harrington Sackville that the investigation into his death would make the name Sherlock Holmes known throughout the land, Mr. Sackville would have scoffed.
We get a few more of Sackville’s thoughts before he exits stage right. Then we continue to Chapter One, where we meet the character of Lord Ingram Ashburton, who as far as I know doesn’t correspond to any character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s world. Ashburton seethes with worry for Sherlock Holmes, to whom he writes an oblique letter, begging Holmes not to go through with some unnamed action. His wife then brings him dire news of “…Holmes. Your Holmes” who is evidently a woman.
The stories switches to the aforementioned Holmes, first name Charlotte, being caught in flagrante delicto with the married Roger Shrewsbury, by his wife and a phalanx of female friends and relatives, the most formidable of which is Shrewsbury’s mother, Lady Shrewsbury. The entire scene seemed extremely unlikely to me from start to finish – from the way Shrewsbury’s wife finds out about his plans to deflower Charlotte, to the idea that a bunch of women would descend upon the scene en masse.
So, we’re just about 3% into the book, and I’m already aggravated; I can’t figure out what’s going on, who is who, and we’ve been given the perspective of three different characters already (none of whom is Sherlock Holmes). We’ll get the perspectives of three more, including such extensive POV musings from Charlotte’s sister Livia that I started to wonder if she was the main character in the book, before we actually get the POV of Charlotte Holmes, otherwise known as Sherlock.
This was where I started to wonder if my lack of familiarity with the Arthur Conan Doyle books was a hindrance – maybe this multiple perspective, all-over-the-place plotting is a hallmark of his style? I didn’t, and don’t, know. I do know that it presented some challenges to me as a reader. I may have mentioned before: I get anxious like a herding dog missing two sheep when I can’t follow a plot. I can tell myself to get through it and things will get clearer (and of course they did) but it’s not my favorite way to start off a book.
So I’m going to have to explain the plot in a linear fashion, because that’s just how my mind works. Charlotte Holmes lives with her parents (awful mother; less overtly awful father), and two of three sisters (the oldest is married): Livia, whom she’s very close to, and Bernadine, who appears to be developmentally disabled in some way. We first see Charlotte through Livia’s eyes, and learn that she didn’t talk until a very late age but when she did her observations were unusually sophisticated. As Charlotte grew, she developed an angelic appearance – blonde ringlets, big limpid eyes and a rounded figure (Charlotte likes to eat; I liked that about her). Her personality is eccentric; like the Doyle Holmes she could be viewed as perhaps being on the autism spectrum. She sometimes appears not to understand or relate well to human emotion, but she’s very, very good with logic.
Charlotte has been helping her childhood friend Lord Ashburton, occasionally giving him insights into cases she hears of; Ashburton passes these tips on to a friend, Inspector Robert Treadles of the Metropolitan Police. But now Charlotte (or “Sherlock”) is lost as a source to Treadles. For reasons too byzantine (and honestly, I thought dumb) to go into, Charlotte has decided to ruin herself with Roger Shrewsbury. She doesn’t plan to get caught, but caught she is and now she’s not just ruined but disgraced. Charlotte leaves the family home in the middle of the night with a plan to get a job and work her way towards an independent life for herself and her sisters Livia and Bernadine. (For someone who was supposed to be a genius, Charlotte really lacked a certain sort of smarts – call it street smarts or simple common sense.)
Anyway, just as Charlotte is finding that life in a boarding house and looking for a job without legitimate references are not all they’re cracked up to be, a series of deaths draws her back into detective mode. Harrington Sackville, Lady Shrewsbury and Lady Amelia Drummond all die within days of each other, seemingly of natural causes. But there are reasons to be suspicious about Sackville’s death, and while Lady Shrewsbury was not young, she was in good health. Further, the fact that she had a public fight with Livia Holmes hours before her death causes tongues to wag. It turns out that Lady Amelia (whose name I had to look up; far, far less time is spent on her death than the other two, to the point that I kept forgetting about her entirely) was an ex-fiancee of Charlotte’s father, and that the two had quarreled right before her death.
So now Charlotte has a strong impetus to solve the crimes (if there were crimes at all, which is in question): in order to save the reputations of her beloved sister and her somewhat less-beloved father. Charlotte’s own fortunes turn when she meets her Watson – Mrs. Watson, a wealthy widow who previously tread the boards as an actress. Charlotte moves in with Mrs. Watson as a companion, but soon the older woman begins to fulfill the traditional Watsonish role of assistant and sounding board to the brilliant Holmes.
The resolution to the mystery was complicated, to the point that I’m not sure I understood every aspect of it. It wasn’t the sort of thing a reader could figure out by following the clues, I don’t think, which may or may not be an annoyance to the average mystery fan.
What I liked: the writing was excellent, as is to be expected from Sherry Thomas. I really liked Charlotte; I loved that her outward appearance was so at odds with her inner personality. I was intrigued by the tense and fraught relationship between Charlotte and Ashburton, which I believe will develop more in the following books in the series. I liked Livia; she was a sympathetic character who truly cares about her sisters and deserves a better life than the one she has stuck at home with her parents, a virtual old maid. I do wonder about her function in future stories because she seems a bit redundant if Holmes has Watson, but perhaps she’ll manage to find her own romantic partner at some point.
What didn’t work for me as well: gosh, this was a complicated story with a lot of characters to keep track of. That may be a plus for some readers but it wasn’t for me. As I noted above, even with some fairly expositiony dialogue on the resolution to the mystery, I think I missed a few things. It also felt odd that though the story was supposed to be about three murders, really only one, the murder of Sackville, is investigated in detail.
Even though I really liked Charlotte, I was a bit disappointed when she displayed un-Sherlock-like characteristics. She was really unrealistic about how easy it would be to move out of her parents’ house and set herself up as an independent woman. She ended up needing a man to rescue her, to a degree. While that’s realistic and believable for 25-year-old sheltered miss Charlotte Holmes, I somehow expect more from the brilliant Sherlock Holmes. I’m hoping she may begin to grow stronger in her Sherlock persona in future books, though.
Though I will continue to read the series and am interested in how the characters develop, my grade for A Study in Scarlet Women is a slightly tepid B-.