Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

A Study in Scarlet Women is the 1st book in the new Lady Sherlock series, where USA Today bestselling author Sherry Thomas turns the story of the renowned Sherlock Holmes upside down (Available October 18, 2016).

I suppose I should admit my experience with England’s most infamous detective is limited to the BBC’s cinematic and frustratingly short-seasoned drama, Sherlock, and childhood memories of half-hour reenactments featuring a Jack Russell Terrier in a deerstalker and trench coat. Though I’ve never actually read a Sherlock Holmes novel, I’d heard nothing but glowing praise for Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women. Recasting the intolerably clever detective as a woman seemed a perfect way to change the game, especially one the picture of ideal femininity.

Charlotte Holmes is a woman of few words, quick wit, and an indelible love for plum cake. Even at fifteen, she has no desire to enter into marriage. Instead, she desires to be headmistress of a girls’ school. A promise to her father to “try” to join society in exchange for a fully funded education should she still feel the same at twenty-five ends with her father refusing to honor his word. Upset, Charlotte resorts to the only option left to assure her inability to marry: removing her maidenhead via a former suitor. Her plan to blackmail her father into keeping his promise goes awry when her lover, Roger Shrewsbury, blabs to his wife about their plans and gets them both caught in the act.

When a series of mysterious deaths claims Lady Shrewsbury, mother of the offending party, an equally mysterious letter from Sherlock Holmes stating the deaths are murders catches the attention of Inspector Treadles. Treadles has dealt with Holmes before, but only through Lord Ingram, one of Charlotte’s childhood friends. 

While trying to piece together a life for herself full of the independence she desires, Charlotte attempts to lure speculation away from her family and her fall from grace—until witnesses place her father threatening one of the victims.

I find it difficult to put into words just how much I enjoyed this book. The writing is clever, the setting magnificent, and the duel plots blend together beautifully with a dash of humor and the sort of society bickering I love in period books. If there’s anything more absurd than a scandal, it’s an unexpected death. The circumstance loan themselves well to creating a multilayered mystery without overly complicating the narrative. While I enjoy Charlotte’s voice very much, her sister Livia holds a special place in my heart. I do love a sassy and sarcastic gal.

Groaning, Livia staggered out of bed: she needed to go down and delay her parents’ discovery of Charlotte’s absence for as long as possible.

She barely made it to the top of the stairs when Lady Holmes stomped up, a wild expression on her face. “You will never guess what happened!”

Her voice scratched across Livia’s skull. A wave of nausea pounded her. “Wh—what happened?”

Had Lady Holmes already found out that Charlotte was gone?

“Lady Shrewsbury is dead.”

Livia braced a hand on the newel post, her incredulity shot through with an incipient dread. “How can that be?”

“They found her expired early this morning. The doctor’s already been and declared it an aneurysm of the brain. But I think it’s divine justice. The way she came and shoved all the blame on us, when it was her own son who was the cad and the bounder? She deserved it.”

Livia shuddered at her mother’s callousness. “I don’t believe the Almighty strikes anyone dead solely for being petty, or even hypocritical.”

“I happen to be convinced that sometimes He does.” Lady Holmes’s tone was triumphant. “And maybe this is the year He smites those who have been thorns in my side.”

It took Livia a moment to realize that Lady Holmes was referring to Lady Amelia Drummond. That name had never been brought up in the Holmes’s household, certainly not in Livia’s hearing. But Lady Amelia’s abrupt death—she’d been the picture of health and vigor only the day before—had been quite the topic of gossip for the past fortnight.

The multiple points of view work together incredibly well. It’s always a concern of mine that too many shifting lenses will end up with a muddled and confused story. We hop between Charlotte, Livia, and Inspector Treadles, and the three support each other and intertwine the plots beautifully. I find I’m particular to Charlotte’s voice because she’s such an interesting dichotomy of passion, loyalty, and daring. She’s Sherlock Holmes in every aspect, and so much more. She stands out not as recreation, but as her own character.

What struck me most was the importance of family in Thomas’s narrative. Traditionally, Sherlock’s only confidant and friend is John Watson—with perhaps the occasional interlude from brother Mycroft—but Charlotte has a fully fleshed-out mother, father, three sisters, and, later, Mrs. Watson.

Charlotte and Livia are extremely close, and Thomas cracks the “high-functioning sociopath” cliché by allowing Charlotte to feel—though Charlotte readily admits she doesn’t understand certain responses. While she doesn’t hold society and its expectations for women in high regard, Charlotte is a compassionate, funny, and cunning lady. She’s weaponized her femininity and turned the tables on the men who would otherwise doubt her by assuming a position as Sherlock’s “sister” and relaying “his” observations to her clients.

The other fascinating and fantastic aspect of this series is the complete inversion of the Sherlock narrative. Not only is Sherlock now female, the role of John Watson goes to his wife. Mrs. Watson is an actress who crossed from the demimonde by way of marriage. Her husband died in Afghanistan, leaving her very rich and very lonely. She takes Charlotte on as a lady’s maid, but helps Charlotte launch the Sherlock scheme with much enthusiasm and zeal. 

I don’t want to spoil all the fun twists and turns, but all the classic favorites get a mention, including Mrs. Hudson and Moriarty. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, women with agency and autonomy, or just looking for an excellent new read, I highly recommend A Study in Scarlet Women. There’s murder, intrigue, espionage, and even a touch of romance.

I’m eagerly looking forward to the next adventure and this is most definitely a series I’ll be keeping up with.

 

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Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at ExquisitelyOdd.com.

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