I was so absorbed in this novel, I read it in one long, very lovely day, the kind of weekend day where you look back with a sort of awed gratitude that you spent most of the daylight hours reading happily. Everything that I found so enthralling about the first book in this series, A Study in Scarlet Women, I found here: layers of meaning, thoughtful scenes and pieces of dialogue, multi-faceted examinations of simple but painful concepts, a wickedly sharp through-line of feminism and subversion, and the sense that each scene and word was placed deliberately, with additional meaning. I followed this book where it led me and was extremely content.
Then I woke up around 3:30am the night after I finished it, my brain spinning and unhappy, similar to the way I woke up after seeing Wonder Woman, fixating on the scene after the mustard gas. Obviously this book is not a romance, but enough is sad and uncertain at the end, my readerly brain struggled with the ending, though the major points of the story are resolved. To put it another way, the mystery is resolved by the final page. The mess that mystery creates is not, and it leaves characters I care about in an uncertain place. Hence my worried brain waking up to fuss about it at 3:30. (My brain is weird.)
I know there has been some question as to whether this can be read as a stand-alone. I think so, though I’m not an entirely trustworthy source because I did read book one, and I really enjoyed it. As a result, I entered this novel with a happy anticipation because I loved the characters and the reinvention of Sherlock Holmes as Charlotte Holmes, but I also entered with next to no memory of what happened in book one. I don’t remember what I was wearing yesterday or what day or year it is; I remember exactly two scenes from A Study in Scarlet Women, and both involved Charlotte eating something (she loves pastry, especially in times of turmoil). So I think this book can be read without having read book one in the series. Some of the events are summarized quickly, or the significance of a scene related to the prior book is explained economically without unnecessary and awkward exposition, so as a reader you won’t miss much. But Scarlet Women is so enjoyable, and explains so much of why Charlotte and Mrs. Watson and the other women in the story are so interesting, I recommend you read it either way.
The mystery setup is pretty simple: Charlotte solves crimes both nefarious and domestic as “Sherlock” Holmes, posing in an elaborately staged ruse as the assistant to her brother, who is ill and must remain in bed. At the start of this book, she is hired by Lord Ingram’s wife. Lord Ingram and Charlotte have a long history together, and a great deal of unresolved emotional and sexual tension. Lady Ingram wants to hire Charlotte to find a man who had been her first love, and who had disappeared without updating her or explaining why he was breaking their annual wordless visit (they walk by one another once a year without speaking). Charlotte takes the case, despite her friend and business partner Mrs. Watson’s hesitation – Lady Ingram is not the most kind person, nor is her marriage to Lord Ingram very happy, and Mrs. Watson’s loyalty is to Charlotte above all. Charlotte has to then negotiate the investigation into this missing person, which is complicated when the missing man is revealed to be her illegitimate half-brother.
The politics of being a woman, being who you genuinely are, and going after what you want are the foundation of much of the tension in this story. Each woman in the story has to deal with how she is perceived by others, and how much power that person might have over her – and that power and perception varies wildly. The story also shifts on who believes what a woman says and why – another form of power. All of those elements combine to inform how the different women react.
For example, Charlotte knows very few men take her seriously, and cannot help but be charmed and curious about intelligent men who do. She also knows she is entirely herself, and doesn’t care what people think. But the people she cares for most, among them her sisters Olivia and Bernadette, are under the control of others, and in Olivia’s case, reside there in part because they are unable to stop caring:
“Life is not easy for Livia – it has never been. She is an intelligent, discerning woman who believes her intelligence and discernment to be of no value.”
“You must have felt the pressure to believe the same.”
“Not at all. It took me a great deal of effort to understand that such pressure exists – I am not sensitive to the opinions of others, individually or as a collective. But Livia is. She is excruciatingly aware of what she is expected to be and how different that is from who she is. Not for a moment does she not feel her shortcomings.“
A lot happens while Charlotte pursues her case, and I don’t want to give too much away. Each scene and twist in the plot reveals more about the ones just before. There are also a number of people whose existence makes a mess of things for the other characters. Among the most painful scenes were between Inspector Treadles and his wife, Alice. Treadles had a much larger role in the first book, and in this one he is on the periphery of a mystery that involves Holmes almost by accident. Treadles discovers in the first book that there are things he cannot provide for his wife, and that discovery has brought him a great deal of misery. At one point in his book, he asks his wife silently, Why do you want things I can’t possibly give you? Why must you desire power and unwomanly accomplishments? And are you, in the end, also not who I thought you were, not the one I loved and respected?
Treadles is neck-deep in damaging masculinity and class privilege, and cannot reconcile his wife’s ambitions to run her family company with his own desire that she be happy as his wife and her role in making their home, a home that he provides for them. As Charlotte says in a discussion about Treadles:
And then there are men like Inspector Treadles, an excellent person by almost all standards. But he admires the world as it is and he subscribes to the rules that uphold the world as it is. For him…[a]nyone who breaks the rules endangers the order of the world and should be punished. He does not ask whether the rules are fair; he only cares that they are enforced.
When her comments upset Lord Ingram a little, she adds that Treadles isn’t evil or cruel, but that:
…for him, questioning what he believes – what he believes so deeply he doesn’t even think about – would be more painful than breaking his own kneecaps with a sledgehammer.
It’s unnerving and reassuring to read characters like these and think, “I know someone like that – many someones, in fact.” There’s both a specificity and a universality to the ways in which the different people in this book see the world, which added to my feeling that each word is placed deliberately, and each scene and line is there for a thoughtful reason. As weird as this may sound, I liked very much that this book respected my intelligence, and that multiple characters reflected positions and feelings that I’ve held, or witnessed. There are some situations to which I cannot easily relate for a woman at that time, but there are far more than resonate across time periods on a visceral, personal level.
Another element to this book that I loved was Livia’s repeated attempts to write the story of Sherlock Holmes as fiction – her initial sentences are so amusing (and so terrible). Livia’s love of fiction also relates to her desire to have more control of her world, when she has so little control in the first place:
Charlotte had little use for fiction: She would rather not deal with people altogether if she didn’t have to, real or imaginary. Livia, on the other hand, actively preferred literary characters to real-life acquaintances: Tom Sawyer stayed forever young, Viola always retained her spunk, and Mr. Darcy could never turn out to be a hypocrite who was also disappointing in bed.
Livia, it will probably not surprise you to learn, is one of my favorite characters. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Charlotte, and I admire Mrs. Watson and her niece, but my favorite is probably Livia.
There came a point in the novel where I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, if Charlotte knew more than she thought, or if she was being (mis)led as I was. But because I know I’m not smarter than some of the individuals in the story, I’m fine with having to follow along until I catch up, or until all is explained. There were a few times when I was pretty sure the book was smarter than me, and there were fewer times when I wanted to warn the characters that something was very wrong. Sometimes, when my suspicions were correct, I was embarrassingly pleased with myself.
When I read a mystery that’s part of a series like this one, I expect that the larger case will be solved, and the character development will move forward another step or two. Both of those things happened in this book, but that development meant that a lot of situations were broken, unsure, or precarious, so I feel the need to warn you that the story might leave you feeling unsettled as well. I was so pleased with the story, how it confused and challenged me with multiple puzzles (the parts where Charlotte solves various kinds of encrypted and coded text, and the history behind those cyphers, was terrific) and I respect how much I learned from and was tricked by the plot, and how intricately it explored issues facing women that were true then and are still true now. But I was still uneasy and restless at the end, knowing how much was uncertain for the characters.
Throughout the story, women cannot escape or undo the power of men over them. Even ruined and socially unacceptable Charlotte is in danger, and Mrs. Watson worries about her safety constantly. Each woman in the story is also burdened with the problem of how she is perceived, which is and is not under her control, and how other people, especially men with power, treat her as a result, especially if she elects to not care about their opinion. There’s a consequence to not caring, and a consequence for caring too much, or not enough – and the questions that originate in each character will keep my brain busy for a long time. This is a thoughtful, clever, absorbing book that will keep you occupied long after you finish it.