This first book in Sherry Thomas's gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes mystery series offers not only an irresistible heroine, but a fascinating examination of gender in Victorian society--and what happens when women blow up expectations.
I listened to the audiobook of Sherry Thomas's A Study in Scarlet Women, the first in her Lady Sherlock series.
The story presents Charlotte Holmes, a clever, forward-thinking, independent woman trapped in the Victorian age, a time in which women have little choice and even less of a voice.
Charlotte will go to almost any length to avoid being married off to an eligible bachelor of her parents' choosing and become stuck in society's ridiculous, boring web of manners and expectations.
When she pushes against her restrictions in a brilliant yet shocking manner in order to shift her future, she goes so deeply against the standards of the time that she is shunned from society. It seems Charlotte may have created a situation in which she has fewer options than her constrained existence as a lady would have afforded.
Then a series of unusual events lead to Charlotte's assuming the identity of a made-up detective, Sherlock Holmes, and putting to good use her powers of observation and her astute reading of people's motivations and secrets. Along with her scandalous elderly sidekick, the former actress Ms. Watson (who has a keen mind and an ability to play roles as well as facilitate meetings and encounters), Charlotte reimagines what a Victorian woman may be able to achieve.
Charlotte is strong-willed and an irresistible character. She is bristly yet caring, and her risky rejection of limitations for women is captivating.
The necessity of keeping the identity of Sherlock secret leads to all manner of outrageous schemes in which: Charlotte presents herself as a male Sherlock's sister, conveying messages back and forth to his "sickbed"; Mrs. Watson pretends to be the maid in a hastily set-up false household; and Charlotte is both followed and surveils others.
Because a Victorian woman could not independently travel to visit witnesses--nor could she openly question males in the forthright manner necessary--a trusty male investigator pursues suspects while communicating via letter with Sherlock. While I liked the inspector character, I was disappointed at having less page time to spend with Charlotte because of this structure.
Yet the lack of autonomy and status for a woman in the time necessitates this approach; a woman simply couldn't insert herself into certain situations and receive cooperation to advance the investigation or the case. Using a nonexistent brother and a made-up identity for him as shields, Charlotte cleverly crafts a makeshift situation in which she is able to solve puzzles, use her quick thinking, ask questions, and solve mysteries.
A slow-burn romantic spark between Charlotte and a longtime friend, Lord Ingram, offers a different angle to the story that I loved.
I love that the title is a play on the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.
The "scarlet women" theme is fascinating. The intersection of scandal, virtue, power, and perception in the place and time in which the story takes place lead to interesting complications and examinations of important societal issues.
I can't wait to read more in this series!
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
This is the first of seven (and counting?) books in the Lady Sherlock series, with the seventh, A Tempest at Sea, scheduled for publication in 2023.
Sherry Thomas also writes young adult fantasy books as well as historical romances.