Sherlock Holmes has a pretty minimal origin story. It’s told briefly in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” — published a few years after Doyle first created the character — and it truly could not be simpler: The father of one of Holmes’s college friends notices that Holmes is brilliant and says he should become a detective, and then Holmes becomes a detective. That’s it. There’s no time to waste on this issue — we have mysteries to solve.
But in Sherry Thomas’s new novel A Study in Scarlet Women, Holmes’s origin story gets a lot more complicated. Because Thomas’s Holmes is a woman in Victorian England, and she can’t just set herself up as a detective the way Doyle’s Holmes can.
Charlotte Holmes has never thought about becoming a detective. She knows she has a brilliant mind, and she enjoys deducing things about the people she sees, but she also knows that no respectable person would pay a woman to solve mysteries for them. That fact is so clear to her that the thought of making a career out of her deductive prowess has never even crossed her mind.
Since she has no desire to marry, she’s given careful consideration to the career possibilities available to a woman of her social standing. Her best bet, she has determined, is to become the headmistress at a girls’ school, assuming she can get her parents to finance the education necessary for such a position.
When it becomes clear that they won’t, and when they insist that she instead make an advantageous marriage, Charlotte logically and cold-bloodedly arranges to have herself deflowered and hence rendered unmarriageable. Then she sets out into the world, a fallen woman, to make the most of the opportunities still available to her. Her highest ambition now is to find work as a typist.
Charlotte’s painfully realistic ambitions are both a strength and a weakness for A Study in Scarlet Women. On the one hand, it’s beautifully tragic to demonstrate that Sherlock Holmes, the character who singlehandedly codified the “brilliant detective” trope for all of popular culture, would as a woman be forced to confine her brilliant mind to secretarial work. It’s shades of the Virginia Woolf essay where she imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally brilliant sister, and concludes that the best-case scenario would have found that imagined woman penniless, pregnant, and suicidal.
On the other hand: This is a Sherlock Holmes mystery. We expect some crime solving. And it’s not until halfway through the novel that Charlotte — at the prodding of Mrs. John Watson, a widowed former actress — realizes that with a little subterfuge, she can set herself up as a consulting detective and use her mind to make her living.
It’s fun to watch Charlotte and Mrs. Watson craft their elaborate ruse. They dress up Mrs. Watson’s apartment on Baker Street as a man’s house and put out advertisements on behalf of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. When clients arrive, Charlotte explains that her brother Sherlock is tragically bedridden in the next room and cannot see visitors, but will be able to hear the details of their case from Charlotte. It’s all very clever and entertaining — but it takes a long time to get there.
While there is a mystery in the first half of the novel, Charlotte is forced by circumstances to involve herself only peripherally. At that point, her focus is on finding a respectable boarding house and a source of income. As a character study, this is compelling; as a murder mystery, it’s poor pacing.
A Study in Scarlet Women has a killer premise, some interesting character work, and a regrettably poorly structured plot. If you hear “lady Sherlock Holmes” and are immediately sold, you will probably enjoy this book regardless of its weaknesses, but if that premise on its own is not quite enough for you, A Study in Scarlet Women won’t be quite enough for you either.