“Do you think an extraordinary woman ought to be treated differently, my dear?”
“The extraordinary will always be treated differently—they’re extraordinary, after all. What I wonder is whether a not-so-extraordinary woman will ever be treated the same as a not-so-extraordinary man.”
Reviewed by Tori
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. (Goodreads)
What if the story behind Sherlock Holmes was not as the world has been led to believe? What if Sherlock Holmes was not an eccentric man but an eccentric woman? A woman who in the eyes of society committed a horrific sin and finds herself ostracized and forced to seek employment? A woman whose intelligence is in direct odds with her kewpie doll appearance? A woman whose only hope of survival is a man she cannot have, a secret widow, and a sister who may have committed murder? Would we still be as interested?
I say yes.
Set in the Victorian Era, Thomas opens the story in the future with two separate scenes. One introduces us to the 1st victim; Mr. Sackville, and the other the protagonist, Charlotte Holmes. We learn exactly what happens to Charlotte and from there Thomas takes us back the beginning to explain to us how Charlotte came to that point in her life and becomes involved in Mr. Sackville’s death and the two that follow.
“I thought of calling myself Charlie Holmes would be too obvious. Sherlock is similar enough to Charlotte without being its exact masculine equivalent.”
The youngest of four children in an affluent abet miserable family, Charlotte’s oddities-the ability to read people and situations with uncanny and often embarrassing honestly- come to light early on in her childhood. She learns to hide her eccentricity to a certain degree as she grows older in order to fit into better with society. When she decides she doesn’t want to marry, she strikes a deal with her father. If she, by age 25, still doesn’t want to get married, he will pay for her education in order for her to pursue a career befitting a single woman. Her sister, Olivia (Livia), warns her that their father is not to be trusted. That he will not honor his word to her.
“Remember Charlotte, Papa doesn’t like women. He’d feel a lot more hesitation breaking his word to a man-but you aren’t a man.“
When Livia’s prophetic words come true, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands without considering the ramifications of her decision. Her punishment is to be thrust out into a world that despises her for her gender and soon discovers first hand the double standards that have haunted the female sex since the beginning of time.
“It is the same old story. But when it happened to me, I thought he was special and I was special. And it turned out neither of us was special at all.”
Charlotte eventually lands on her feet with some help from a powerful childhood friend whose strong affections hint at the possibility of something more in the future but for now offers Charlotte a safety net. The impeccable Mrs. Watson makes our acquaintance and a partnership is born.
A Study in Scarlet is the first in a historical mystery series by Sherry Thomas that takes a famous fictional character and offers up a new perspective on an old favorite. I can’t say I’m a die hard fan of Sherlock Holmes but I have enjoyed reading them on occasion. I admit to being intrigued when I first read Thomas was going to gender swap this character and offer readers a new backstory and protagonist. This auspicious undertaking offers two very different but equally compelling storylines that run simultaneously, remaining curiously separate until the very end. Dynamic characters fill the story to almost overflowing, each one a strong personality that commands the scenes in which they participate in. The formal dialogue and narrative is well written and keeps the reader firmly engaged in the time period though it doesn’t flow as easily as I would have liked. At times I felt as though I was being buried in exposition. The story is slow to start in the beginning as Thomas sets the stage. It’s around the quarter mark that we begin to see the storyline settle itself and pick up the pace.
Charlotte is an interesting protagonist I am looking forward to watching grow and evolve. She reminded me a lot of Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan. Thomas does a fantastic job of showcasing the perils Charlotte faces as a woman on top of the tense mystery that she is compelled to help solve. A contradiction in looks and temperament; her appearance effectively hides her brilliant, analytical mind. Her cold logic is at direct odds with the warm and at times humorous relationship she shares with her sister, Watson, and Lord Ingram. A romance with food only furthers her appeal. What struck me most about Charlotte was the innocence Thomas manages to imbue her with. She is an honorable, straightforward person and the slight nuances of humanity we all prescribe to often escape her. She expects those she deals with to be an honorable as herself and every time she was shown the opposite, a hard lesson is learned. That’s not to say she isn’t knowledgeable to her personality and its supposed flaws. She knows what she is and accepts it… most of the time.
“He made her human-or as human as she was capable of being. And being human was possibly her least favorite aspect of life.”
Charlotte’s sister Livia is a delight and I thoroughly enjoyed the dramatic way she approached all aspects of her life. Lord Ingram is a dark horse, a curious mixture of autocratic reserve and modern sensibilities whose interest in Charlotte is both comforting and heartbreaking. Of course, what would Holmes be without Watson. Thomas creates the perfect foil for Holmes in Watson. An older woman who also suffers the stigma of society’s disapproval, she gives Charlotte the support she needs to persevere.
I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery. Thomas keeps readers in the dark as she leads us down a twisted path of lies and revenge that dates back years and handles the players involved with a deft hand. I admit I was completely shocked once we learned the main reasons for the deaths.
There were some issues I had with the book overall. An overwhelming amount of points of view saturate the story in the beginning and causes some confusion as we jump from character to character with no visual clues to warn us. I had hoped Charlotte would be more physically present in the investigation though understandably she is not able to be due to her gender. As it was, she gives direction and the police do the footwork. There was also the side story involving Lord Ingram. I really wish we had gotten to see the scenes of importance concerning him and Charlotte as they happened rather than hearing them mentioned offhand in memory.
A Study in Scarlet Women was a most enjoyable read that held my attention even with the issues I have listed above. I find myself more than ever eager to see what manner of business Charlotte Holmes engages in the future; especially now that the main introductions and world set up have been taken care of.