The Women of Baker Street
by Michelle Birkby
Pan Books (February 2017)
368 p. ISBN 9781509809738
As Sherlock and Watson return from the famous Hound of the Baskervilles case, Mrs Hudson and Mary must face their own Hound, in the swirling fog of Victorian London …When Mrs Hudson falls ill, she is taken into a private ward at St Barts hospital. Perhaps it is her over-active imagination, or her penchant for sniffing out secrets, but as she lies in her bed, slowly recovering, she finds herself surrounded by patients who all have some skeletons in their closets. A higher number of deaths than usual seem to occur on this ward. On her very first night, Mrs Hudson believes she witnesses a murder. But was it real, or just smoke and mirrors? Mary Watson meanwhile has heard about young boys disappearing across London, and is determined to find them and reunite them with their families. As the women’s investigations collide in unexpected ways, a gruesome discovery in Regent’s Park leads them on to a new, terrifying case.
I was eagerly anticipating the release of this book, having thoroughly enjoyed its predecessor, The House at Baker Street. Knowing that sequels can occasionally be a cause of disappointment, I tempered my expectations before I cracked open the spine (or, rather, digital copy- the hardcopy is not readily available in the US yet, and so while awaiting the arrival of my hardcopy, I went ahead and bought a second copy on my Nook) and settled in to find out what Mary Watson and Mrs. Hudson were up to now.
I needn’t have worried. The Women of Baker Street is an excellent follow-up and, in some ways, is better than the first in the series.
The book wastes no time in getting us into the mystery. With an incredibly creepy and ominous opening that sets the stage for what is to come, we are soon hurried through the circumstances of Mrs. Hudson’s illness. Perhaps too hurried- I myself would have enjoyed some fussing over Mrs. Hudson by Watson and Holmes- but having read the whole book now, I can see why the author didn’t linger much over her actual moment of collapse.
Soon we are introduced to a truly eclectic and strange group of women who share the ward with Mrs. Hudson while she recuperates. In the first book there were some truly fine original characters, but it largely focused on fleshing out the Canon characters. Here, though, we meet eight new women in quick succession. I worried I would have trouble keeping them all straight, and for perhaps a page or two I did. But every woman has her own personality and her own mystery, so they soon became their own people and any confusion dried up quickly. In fact, I found myself wanting to learn the full story about every single woman, and was captivated by their mysteries.
If secrets was the theme of the first book, haunting is the theme of this one. Every single person in the book, including Mrs. Hudson and Holmes, is haunted by the spectral presence of their past. It is these hauntings that drive the mysteries encountered. At times the hauntings are simply heartbreaking; in other cases, dark and ominous. Mrs. Hudson’s haunting was, I thought, the most effective, in part because she is our POV character, but also because the actions she took in the previous book took a toll on her. Watching her struggle with the conclusion of the previous book is heart-wrenching, but also satisfying. It is an easy thing to make a character accept their actions and move on; it is quite another to have a character grapple with them and force themselves to reexamine what they’ve done. I loved watching Mrs. Hudson struggle, and particularly loved the help she received along the way, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources.
The theme of haunting is present in the overall atmosphere of the book as well. It really was quite creepy at times, with certain scenes driving me to set down the book for a moment so I could take a breath. There are moments of terror for the characters, and the writing was done so well that I found myself caught up in it all.
While the first book meandered occasionally, with flashbacks to Mrs. Hudson’s life before Baker Street, or providing little glimpses into shared histories and moments, this book is more firmly a mystery novel. And it is an excellent mystery, incredibly twisty, with multiple suspects and a horrifying conclusion. I was very much impressed in how the two separate mysteries were handled by the author; both were given roughly the same amount of focus, but at no point did I feel lost or like something was missing. When the mysteries wove together, it was incredibly organic, with everything clicking into place naturally. As a warning, it is also a very dark story, so if you prefer lighter mysteries, this may not be something you enjoy. I, however, loved it.
With this book being more of an actual mystery novel, it is tempting to read it before the first one, which has elements of a character study. However, I would advise that this isn’t a standalone book. You will likely find yourself lost if you don’t read the first in the series, because while Women of Baker Street has a much more straightforward narrative, it also very much references and relies on threads that were set up in The House at Baker Street.
Once you finish this book, I fully anticipate you will be eager for the next. Not to worry- I have already pestered the author on twitter, and she believes it should be out in early 2018.
What About Our Watson?
Much as in the first book of the series, this book provides us with two Watsons to examine, John Watson and Mary Watson.
It is Watson who, in some ways, helps set the stage for the case, for it is Watson who uses his connections to get Mrs. Hudson into the private ward. He appears primarily as a doctor, stopping in to check on Mrs. Hudson, but we also discover that he’s assisting a young woman nurse in her studies to become a doctor, and is also helping Mary learn about anatomy and physiology. He is an incredibly supportive husband to Mary, and I truly adore the ongoing depictions of their life together. The hints we get in Canon about their relationship are brought more into the open, and they’re wonderful to behold.
Mary herself is much the spitfire we met in the first book, though she is clearly growing. She has enlisted her husband to teach her more about the body so she can approach cases with more information, and though she still has a reckless streak, she’s more willing to listen when Mrs. Hudson tells her to slow down. Mary is so passionate and brave, it’s impossible not to love her, and it’s easy to see why she and John Watson are such a perfect match. Interestingly, she becomes quite obsessed with about her own case, the mystery of the missing street boys, in such a way that makes me raise an eyebrow and wonder if there isn’t something else going on with Mary…
The Watsons in this book will not disappoint, though if you are strictly a John Watson fan, you may wish he had more time on the page. But as this book is about Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson, it is hardly surprising that he takes a backstage role.
You Might Like This Book If You Like:
Hospital dramas; tragedies; psychological horror; relationships between women
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