A Conspiracy in Belgravia
by Sherry Thomas
Berkley (September 2017)
336 p. ISBN 9780425281413
Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.
Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?
This book is actually the second book in the series, the first being A Study in Scarlet Women. Before you attempt to read this book, I strongly recommend you read the first, both because it will give you a better sense of the world these characters are inhabiting, but also because key elements from the first book carry over into this one- the author is clearly building an overarching mystery, and you will be lost without firmly knowing the contents of the first.
The conceit of the book series is fairly simple, and has been seen and done before: Sherlock Holmes is a woman. In this case, her name is Charlotte, and she is the disgraced daughter of the Holmes family. She has created a fictional brother, Sherlock Holmes, who is a detective, while she is merely a helpful sister. The first book set up the series, and at times struggled between getting all the key characters in place and an interesting mystery. The ultimate result was a book where Charlotte didn’t actually DO much, beyond listen to people, and a mystery so convoluted I still can’t make much sense of it.
That being said, I enjoyed A Conspiracy in Belgravia far more, and am thankful to NetGalley for providing me an ARC. Now that Charlotte and her world is established, the author has more freedom to focus on the mystery plots and incremental character developments, and it works well. Though the mystery still has many, many elements to it- some connecting to the overarching mystery of the series, which naturally connects to Moriarty, while others connect more directly to Charlotte and her home life- I thought it was better handled, more balanced, and easier to follow. I was also thrilled to see Charlotte go out in the world and do things, including canne de combat and a bit of light housebreaking.
I am intrigued by the way the author is working to break apart the Sherlock Holmes Mythos. It’s becoming more common in various adaptations these days; one series that did it in a particularly excellent fashion is the 2013 Russian series. Rather than take the canon at its word about who Holmes is, both this book and the Russian series choose to pick it apart. In this book series, Charlotte Holmes loses none of the deductive brilliance of her canon counterpart; but instead of being athletic and prone to forgetting about food or drink, Charlotte is pudgy, a bit lazy, and adores her food- almost a Mycroft, but far more willing to go find answers. However, rather than leaving her that way, we get to see her grow and change and make strides to being the more familiar Holmes we know from canon.
I am also growing more and more fond of the secondary characters of the series. I’ll leave the Watsons for analysis down below, but there are a few other characters who return in this book. I disliked the presence of Lord Ingram in the first book, in part because he has no canon counterpart, and because I have never particularly enjoyed romances. While the tension between he and Charlotte remains in this book, I found myself enjoying him more, especially as he became less patronizing and more of an actual ally to Charlotte. Lord Bancroft was excellent, and while I remain disappointed that the Mycroft role didn’t go to Livia (Charlotte’s sister- more on her below), I am utterly charmed by him nonetheless. I hope that the author allows him to return in future books, even though his function in this book’s narrative is concluded. The Marbletons continue to intrigue, and Mrs. Burns stole the scenes she appeared in. Though she was certainly a one-off character, I cannot help but hope that Mrs. Watson will hire her. Inspector Treadles, however, was pointless in this book, and I’m not entirely sure why he was included, unless the developments in his household will become important later on.
Given that Holmes is a woman in this series, it would be almost impossible for it not to interact in some way with Victorian gender roles. It does, in some ways, but when Charlotte or the other women run into barriers, it often has as much to do with class as it does with their gender. Class is wielded like a weapon by all the characters in this series, in complex and fascinating ways. The issues of legitimacy and social freedoms abound, ultimately causing all of the unhappiness and trials that lead to the mysteries. None of this is a heavy stick, however; the author weaves these issues into the story in a very natural way.
While I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who prefers their pastiches as close to canon as possible, I would recommend it for anyone who likes those pastiches that go a little further astray. I am looking forward to seeing what Charlotte and her friends will encounter next, and to discover just how it all will come together in the end.
What About Our Watson?
Just as the author has given Holmes some of the characteristics of Mycroft, our Watson figure is divided evenly among three different women. The first is, in fact, Mrs. Watson, an older woman who was once an actress. The second is Penelope, her niece, who is studying to be a doctor. The third is Livia, Charlotte’s sister, still trapped in the unhappy family home.
I. Love. These. Women. Though at times I wished for a more traditional (read: singular) Watson figure in the first book, especially since Mrs. Watson and Livia had little to do, the second book capitalizes on the fact that three different people are acting as a Watson figure and gives them tons of material to work with. All three play their part in solving the mystery and acting as a valuable source of companionship and information to Charlotte. Mrs. Watson (who also has a bit of Mrs. Hudson in her) cares deeply about Charlotte and is very protective of her, working to train her in self-defense, while also helping her hare off into her next, somewhat ill-advised, idea. Penelope helps get Charlotte in houses, utilizing her doctor-in-training role as leverage, and is clearly enamoured of the adventurous parts of the detective life. Livia, cloistered away, can really only talk to her disgraced sister via letter, but still provides vital information and also begins writing the first Sherlock Holmes story. None of these women are unintelligent; all of them are loyal to Charlotte. Though they each have their different strengths, they all contribute to solving the mysteries before them. What’s more, they are willing to run off and do dangerous work, either with glee or trepidation. When they encounter the less savoury parts of detective work, they never shy away. All three of them dig in their heels and confront it, head on.
I love a singular Watson, because I love to see a strong, deep, life-altering friendship. But despite my misgivings, I have come to appreciate Watson’s role spread across these different characters, because it means that this Holmes gets to have three Watsons, and really, what more could one ask for in life?
You Might Like This Book If You Like:
Victorian women protagonists; series long mysteries; family dramas; pastries
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