This book. Man, this book is exactly what I needed this past insanely crappy week. It’s a 4.5 star book, but I needed it so much I can’t give it anything less than a 5 right now. This is the first in a trilogy about Charlotte Holmes, a self-styled private investigator in Victorian London. It is fabulous. I adore the original Sherlock Holmes stories. They helped get me through a summer of studying for the Bar Exam. I was so obsessed that during my lunch break during the test I ran out and ate lunch in my car so I could continue reading as much as possible. I think this book did what all the best homages do – it honored the style and the spirit of the original work while also truly transforming it into its own unique artistic endeavor. There were many little easter eggs buried throughout the book for a Sherlock fan to discover, but you could easily read this book without that background and still enjoy it. One of the more blatant examples – Watson is Mrs. John Watson (yay for female friendships!) and her husband was a field doctor in Afghanistan. A lovely hat tip that also leaves this story open to being its own thing.
This first book is sort of an origin story for Charlotte, who uses the name Sherlock Holmes professionally. There is not even a case for her to solve until the second half of the book, and in many ways the mystery was secondary to everything else going on. The first half is all about how Charlotte sets up her own fall from grace from her upper class family and heads off on her own. This book really tackled the idea of what were the options for women who had brilliant minds they wanted to put to use, but were expected only to marry well. If you have read any historical romance you have seen this idea played out many times. This book is not a romance in the traditional sense (see below), and Charlotte is no traditional character. She is always the smartest person in the room – sometimes she is lauded for it, and sometimes (more often) punished.
Charlotte is a fairly modern thinker in that she doesn’t want to follow her society’s strict standards. This makes her very appealing to a modern audience. Thomas makes it more believable by putting Charlotte on what we would consider the autism spectrum. She has trained herself how to interact with people as a necessity, but she does not understand the intricacies of how society works. She is the feminist I needed in my life this week. She doesn’t really know what to do with herself in her world and is looking for a space to belong. She has wonderful supporters in her life: Watson, her sister, her best friend, and even Inspector Treadles (playing the Lestrade role). The Sherlock/Watson relationship had me continually sighing with pleasure. And, there is a scene between the Inspector and his wife that (1) nearly broke my heart and (2) should be required reading for all men (yes, even men who already identify as feminists).
As for the mystery itself, it is fairly convoluted, in the traditional Holmes style. I am not one to read a mystery trying to solve it the whole way through, but clues are woven in seamlessly throughout, if that is your thing. Because she is a woman in Victorian society, Charlotte does not do a lot of the investigation herself. Inspector Treadles uses Charlotte’s brain and the leads she sends him and does most of the legwork. I think Thomas improved on the Lestrade character – Treadles is less bumbling and more open and accepting of Holmes’ help.
There is a small romance in this book that is clearly going to build over the next two stories. I love a slow burn romance and am looking forward to this one. But, the man in the equation is married to someone else at this juncture of the story, and I know some people really hate that, so be forewarned if it’s a dealbreaker for you. I have read several of Thomas’ historical romances and she often uses uncomfortable situations like this. I trust her enough as an author to go with it and see where she takes it.
I have liked the other books I have read by Sherry Thomas, but this is my favorite work of hers so far. I cannot believe I have to wait until Fall 2017 for the next in the series. I seriously cannot say enough good things about this book. There are horrible things that happen in it, but the tone was light enough that it was the perfect escape from real life that I needed.