Friday, November 5, 2021

Putting Sherlock in Skirts

The best part of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is that not only do I discover writers whose work—sometimes entire series!—has so far escaped my attention, but I also get to talk to them about their books and the choices they make.

Now, let’s be clear: the whole purpose of the New Books Network (NBN) is to showcase authors, not put them on the spot. This approach in part grows out of the network’s academic roots: it’s the nature of scholarship to question and dispute. We can even consider it a benefit, in that the unwillingness to accept ideas as givens works to push science forward. But it can also prevent those who make the new discoveries from having a chance to open their mouths without having a fellow scholar wave a document from some dusty archive and shout, “But what about …?”

The NBN provides a platform for people to explain their views and how they came to develop them without having to defend them at the same time. And although novelists don’t face quite the same pressures, there are moments when they come close. Sherry Thomas’s decision to turn Sherlock Holmes into a woman might be one of those moments. But as she explains in my current interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, she had a very good reason for her choice—and it wasn’t to sell more books (although her publisher would be forgiven for embracing that angle).

The result is a reader’s delight, because Lady Charlotte Holmes, although remarkably like Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in personality, has developed in ways quite different from her literary inspiration—not least because the constraints on women in Victorian aristocratic society force her to approach her cases and life in general in ways that a man never needed to consider. She is also surrounded by a cast of characters who are either entirely new or who share only a last name with their Sherlockian predecessors.

With the sixth in the series, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Charlotte tackles her own (and Sherlock’s) master antagonist head-on for the first time. But Moriarty is a presence from the beginning, so do yourself a favor and read the books in sequence, starting with A Study in Scarlet Women. You’ll be glad you did.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle first created Sherlock Holmes, the great detective has gone through many permutations and been the subject of much study. As Sherry Thomas admits in this latest New Books Network interview, finding a new element to explore is not easy. But she has managed to discover one—perhaps an angle that is particularly fitting in this age of gender fluidity, although the Lady Sherlock series draws much of its punch from and plays off the stereotypes of the past, in this case Victorian England.

In Thomas’s re-imagining of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes is not only a fictional character but a front for the real detective, the disgraced younger daughter of a poverty-stricken baronet. Charlotte Holmes has an incisive intellect, an unflappable temperament, little respect for convention, and a love of books—traits that undermine her intended purpose in life as defined by her parents: to marry a wealthy, titled man. Charlotte cuts a deal with her father: if she’s still unmarried at twenty-five, he will fund her education so that she can earn her living as the headmistress of a girls’ school. But when Dad reneges on the deal, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands, with disastrous (from her parents’ perspective) but delightful (from her own) results.

This is the setup in the first book of the Lady Sherlock series, aptly titled A Study in Scarlet Women. By the time this sixth book rolls around, Charlotte has made a name for her alter ego and had several run-ins with the infamous Professor Moriarty and his underlings. In Miss Moriarty, I Presume? the tables are turned, and the professor seeks out Charlotte for assistance in finding his missing daughter. Unless, of course, the mission is simply a trap aimed at getting the meddlesome Charlotte out of the professor’s life permanently.

It’s best to read this engrossing series from beginning to end, as each book builds on those that came before. But watching Sherry Thomas turning the Holmes canon on its head is tremendous fun, and if you tear through the novels as I did, it won’t take long to reach Miss Moriarty, I Presume?.

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