Serena’s Review: “A Study in Scarlet Women”

28588390Book: “A Study in Scarlet Women” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Christmas present from Kate!

Book Description: With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

Review: While this has been on my TBR list for QUITE a while, I’ve also been incredibly nervous by the entire concept. I mean, let’s be honest, their is definitely “Sherlock exhaustion” in the air. I can think of several adaptations that came out in the last few years off the top of my head, all with “new” twists on the character. Many of these “new” twists are all very similar and have something to do with a female Sherlock, either a modern relation of him, or a modern relation of Watson who is a young woman, something! So, on the face of things, this book falls solidly in the same category. However, it has also been hugely popular and several reviewers whom I trust raved about it. But the credit in this case for me finally getting to reading it goes to Kate for getting it for me for Christmas. And man, suddenly all of my seemingly good reasons for being hesitant about this read went immediately out the window!

As stated, this is yet another re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes. In this version, Charlotte Holmes takes on the role of the brilliant detective, and the surrounding classic characters all get a revamp too. We have a newly imagined Watson, a new take on Mrs. Hudson, and a few references to the Myrcroft of this world. What’s particularly brilliant about them all is how much license the author gave herself to completely re-think these characters, their histories, and their relationships to each other. All too often, “unique” retellings only switch one basic fact and then try to simply re-tell the same story. Like, let’s just make Sherlock a woman, but change nothing else about the character, regardless of the massive impact that this one change would have on everything else. In a case like this, that change makes all the difference, given the very different worlds that men and women inhabited at this time. Often, this leaves these retellings feeling not only hollow, but anachronistic.

But Thomas takes it a step further: not only is Charolette a woman, but she is a woman who, while just as brilliant as Sherlock, is also distinctly her own person. We would expect a female Sherlock (indeed, we’ve seen this play out many times before) to be described as a thin, willowy woman, not only in an attempt to mimic the original character’s height and thinness, but because when wasn’t the young female lead thin and willowy? (but of course she’s insecure about it…) Charlotte is none of these things. A large focus of her day is spent thinking about food, and she has a strict number of chins that she’s decided are allowable before she much cut back. She’s blonde, cherubic, and society regularly uses the word “darling” to describe her. So right off the bat, this is a welcome change! At one point in the story, one character says something along the lines that it is God’s little joke that the most brilliant mind is housed in a body least likely to be suspected of having it. It’s awesome.

Further, Charlotte is written as a believable young woman would be, brilliant mind aside. Her intelligence is on display at all times (particularly her insights into people’s minds based on their clothes choices, as garish fashion is another of her pet loves), but she’s also a young woman who has been raised as a member of the gentry. She’s not automatically amazing at everything (a trope that is far too common for almost all Sherlock iterations nowadays). There are people in her life whom she respects who share with her these skill sets. I loved this attention to realism, and it helped make Charlotte feel like a more believable young woman. And it’s great fun to watch her build towards the “woman of all trades” that she will ultimately become.

Beyond Charlotte, the other characters were exceptional. As I said, their relationships with her and their own personal histories are much changed from the original, but somehow Thomas manages to perfectly capture the essence of each and re-create the roles they play in Charlotte’s story. There are little clues scattered throughout that were immensely fun to put together with my knowledge of the originals.

Further, Thomas introduces new characters, most notably, a beloved sister for Charlotte, Livia. Through Livia, we get an insight into Charlotte’s childhood and family life. Livia, too, serves the purpose of humanizing Charlotte. This was another aspect of this take on Sherlock Holmes that I loved. All too often, because he is brilliant, he’s simply allowed to treat others terribly and it seems as if he truly doesn’t care for anyone around him. Livia impresses upon Charlotte how important it is to learn how to function socially, and we never question Charlotte’s humanity due to her unfailing love for her sisters, particularly Livia.

All of this and I haven’t even covered the mystery! I can barely even sum it up, because, man, it was complicated. And this is one of the biggest compliments I can give it! I love mysteries that are challenging for the reader, and I loved piecing it all together after the reveals towards the end. But I can also see how this might be a turnoff for readers who don’t particularly enjoy mysteries. As I said, this one is pretty complicated, and with the huge cast of characters/suspects, I had to page back and forth a few times to make sure I was keeping track of everything. I didn’t mind this, but it may prove frustrating for other readers.

Beyond all of this, I loved the exploration of what it meant to be a woman in this time, and the underlying feminism at the heart of the story. Never does it bash you over the head, but instead, meticulously, carefully, and graciously, it lays out the case that women are just people, people who have their own thoughts, desires, ambitions, and loves. None of this taking away from the men around them, but simply existing alongside them. There was one scene, in particular, between Inspector Treadles (Charlotte/Sherlock’s connection in the police force) and his wife that really strikes upon this fact. Mrs. Watson, too, was a lovely force of will in this way. And, obviously, Charlotte herself who was ever practical about the limitations of her sex and how best to manage them towards her own goals.

I really could just rave about this book forever, but I’ll cut myself off here. I literally stopped reading about halfway through and ordered the sequel, so expect to see a review for that up soon!

Rating 9: A pure delight! THIS is the Sherlock Holmes re-imagining that I’ve been waiting for!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Study in Scarlet Women” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian/Regency Female Sleuths/Mysteries” and “Reimagined.”

Find “A Study in Scarlet Women” at your library using WorldCat!

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