This is the first installment in a series about a young woman who becomes Sherlock Holmes’ apprentice and, later, his lover and wife. The fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character is pooh-poohed at the beginning of the novel, which I suppose is how these sorts of suspension-of-disbelief matters ought to be handled. The premise is that Holmes retired at the end of his sleuthing career and retreated to his rural home to take care of his beehives – which sounds like a euphemism but isn’t. Mary Russell is a young women about to begin her collegiate studies at the women’s college at Oxford sometime in the late nineteen-teens. The war years pass in a few short chapters, during which Holmes’ intensive lessons in detective work are summarized, and then Mary emerges as a smart and mostly-trained, mostly-trusted associate of Holmes’, who has decided to hang up his shingle once again as a detective. “It is, I can even say, a new and occasionally remarkable experience to work with a person who inspires, not by vacuum, but by actual contribution” (122), croons Holmes. Take that, Watson.
I’ve never read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels or stories, though of course I know who Watson is. I had even heard of Professor Moriarty somehow, though I missed the fact that Holmes sometimes likes to dress up as a woman. I had no idea, though, that Watson is the narrator of Doyle’s stories and novels, and that his general obtuseness gives these narratives a lot of their irony. When I discovered this, I was amazed that Doyle’s work never made its way onto any of my college syllabi, since ironic narration was by far the most common preoccupation of the Dartmouth English department in the mid-‘90’s – in my experience at least. I definitely want to read the original stories now, and I even dug my copy of Doyle’s collected stories out of its basement box last night. It is now sitting on the dining room table, which is sort of the on-deck circle of my book collection.
Once Holmes and Russell start solving cases, I became temporarily bored and annoyed. For a while it seemed as if the plot was going to be entirely episodic, with each chapter or two covering a single case. I didn’t see any signs that the plot was going anywhere. Past the novel’s midpoint, though, the plot begins to congeal around some bombs that are planted at Holmes’, Russell’s, and Watson’s homes. Holmes’ beehives explode, and in his attempt to get to them before the bomb detonates, Holmes receives severe abrasions on his back. Nevertheless, he makes it (in drag) to Russell’s rooms at Oxford in time to defuse the bomb there, and together they manage to rescue Watson, with help from Holmes’ fat brother Mycroft. Then the hunt for the person(s) who planted the bombs takes over the second half of the novel, and the plot has a distinct shape from here on out.
This is not a perfect novel by any means. Set mostly in the early 1920’s, it’s crawling with anachronisms: the use of B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D. and King’s absolutely maddening insistence on expressing time digitally – nine forty-five, three-oh-five, etc. – when no one used these terms until digital clocks were the norm. Elsewhere the writing descends into adverb soup. I know that these are fixable problems, and I have no doubt that King irons the kinks out of her prose in the remaining novels in the series. However, my primary quarrel is with the idea that there is something “revolutionary” about the way Holmes takes Russell under his wing – and the related misconception that the relationship between Holmes and Russell is an equal one. Holmes likes and grows to love Russell, but HIS assertions that he treats her as his equal are self-congratulatory and not at all correct. The relationship between these two characters is not new; it’s part of a longstanding paradigm that includes Kate and Petruchio, Jane and Rochester, Darcy and Elizabeth, and so forth. On several occasions Holmes uses his penchant for dressing up in disguises to mess with Russell’s emotions, and I thought immediately of the parallel scene in Jane Eyre. To be honest, I thought most often of the parallels between this novel and the Fifty Shades trilogy, both because of the push-and-pull struggle for equality that is central to each narrative but also because Holmes, like Christian, is maniacally obsessed with providing superhuman protection for Russell and for the others in their small circle. There is nothing wrong with people protecting one another, of course, but when age and/or gender get mixed up in the compulsion to protect, things can get really condescending, really fast. I’m not sure yet whether King realizes that her characters come off this way, and I am 100% willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that her characters will work through these stumbling blocks for the remainder of the series – and I do, by the way, plan to read at least one more, just to see how things progress.
I know that this is mostly a negative review, but I do recommend this book to people who enjoy mysteries. I enjoyed watching the detectives track down the person who planted the bombs, though I was a little annoyed when the villain gave a self-incriminating, cackling-evil confession speech worthy of an episode of Scooby Doo because that speech negates all the work the detectives have done to find the bomber’s identity and motives. I’m not a huge reader of mysteries, but I know that this kind of speech is a convention of the genre*. Maybe avid readers of mysteries would be disappointed if an author left it out? I don’t know – but I thought the ending would have felt more organic if the author had approached it in another way. I’m very curious to see how these characters and their world are developed in the next installment.
P.S. Speaking of conventions of the genre, there is chess in this novel, and it’s a metaphor. Fair warning.