Bridges, Margaret Park. My Dear Watson. London: MX, 2011*

Find and circle all of the women in this picture.

My Dear Watson will go down in blog history as “the book that sparked a marital spat on the way to church.”**  And really, it’s no wonder, because the story itself is based on a controversial premise: What if Sherlock Holmes were really a woman?

That is, a woman masquerading as a man. As you no doubt know, there are plenty of historical precedents for this.*** These women decided to live as men for varied motives: to obtain an education, to find a military spouse, to work in traditionally male occupations (such as “pirate”), or because they were what we would refer to today as “transgender.” Lucy Holmes’ choice is made first out of necessity, and then out of a desire to fulfill what she sees as her life’s mission: to seek out and combat evil in all its forms.

This is not a choice she makes lightly. Until the age of fourteen, Lucy Holmes was just an awkward, bookish girl with an insatiable curiosity and an aptitude for everything that has nothing to do with practical homemaking.  Her much older brother Mycroft is away at school, and she’s left alone with her parents: a meek, religious mother and a father who loves horses almost as much as he loves other women. Young Lucy is unaware of this predilection, however, until the night her mother accidentally falls downstairs after catching her father with yet another mistress. Shocked and shattered, Lucy accuses her father of murder, and flees to Mycroft’s rooms in Oxford. In order to stay there undetected, she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy. She’s able to live secretly in Christ Church college for nearly a year before she’s discovered and evicted. By that time, however, she’s managed to garner  herself quite a scientific education, and the trauma of her experience has convinced her that, not only does she wish to avoid the subservient life of women like her mother, she also wants to root out wickedness. And the only way to engage that enemy on its own field, she firmly believes, is as a man.

And it works for her. Obviously it works quite well, because as the novel begins, it’s 1903, she’s on the cusp of her 50th birthday, and has an active, prosperous career behind her. She’s not immune, however, to the traditional midlife meditations, however, and these take on a special urgency when Constance Moriarty bursts into 221B.

Yes, Moriarty.  A name that’s never a coincidence in the Sherlockian world.✝  The Napoleon of Crime, it seems, did not leave this world without issue, and his red-headed actress daughter now believes he never left this world at all. She’s received a sort of ransom note claiming he’s alive, and she wants to hire Sherlock Holmes to find him. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Holmes to realize there’s much more to this shocker than is readily apparent, and the murder of a young Irregular confirms her suspicions. It’s not long before she’s fighting for life as she’s known it for thirty-five years, and Watson is in hot pursuit of (yet another) bride. Ms. Bridges sets the adventure against the backdrop of Shakespearean tragedy (Macbeth), and by the time the final scene is played, each of the main characters’ lives is shattered by their fatal flaws.

Watson: Scoping out Mrs. Watson #4
Holmes: Wants everyone to leave so she can “unbind”

Because we all have them, don’t we? Those crevasses in our characters which threaten at times to swallow us the way Constance Moriarty claims the Swiss Alps swallowed her father. These flaws, or quirks, or struggles generally lie dormant until we’re forced to confront them by some catalyst.  For fans of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, My Dear Watson is just such a catalyst. It’s a very well-written book which still challenges one to explore his or her own views of canonicity and world-building. These opinions (and they are only that, for all we may fervently espouse them as doctrine) will naturally vary reader by reader. Here, then, are mine.

First, of course, is the issue of Lucy Holmes. For some, this will be an instant deal-breaker, and that’s fine.✝✝ I will confess that “gender-bending” is not really my thing. I like Holmes and Watson as men. However, pastiche is a playground, and I decided up front that Lucy Holmes would not be an issue for me. What matters, in the end, is whether or not the story is a good one, and whether or not it’s well-told.

For me, the problems started at page one. There in the first paragraph, Ms. Holmes states that she has not been “an experienced writer of anything more substantial than mountains of hastily scribbled research notes.” Of course (and I’ll be honest–I had to check), she was still to write “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”(assuming she wrote it long after it occurred in 1903) and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” (1907) but this statement still leaves the monographs unaccounted for, as well as the magazine article Watson disparages in A Study in Scarlet, “The Book of Life.”  Other canonical problems follow, and unfortunately, they’re the kind that make Holmes’ ability to pass as a woman while living intimately with her physician friend seem implausible. Ms. Holmes claims, for example, that she cared for her own medical needs, and that she never went to the baths. “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” (Baring-Gould date, 1902) would indicate otherwise.

Of course most pastiches contain some canonical error or other, and I’m certainly not well-versed enough to catch them all.✝✝✝   My Dear Watson  also posed some believability problems for me. It was hard to accept that Lucy could remain hidden in college rooms for any length of time at all, even if she were dressing as a boy. The chemistry equipment Mycroft provided her would alert others to her presence if nothing else. The fact that Dr. Watson and Holmes are such close friends raises more plausibility concerns. The man’s a physician. A physician who knows and likes women. And while he may not seem to enjoy doctoring all that much, he proudly claims, in The Sign of Four, “an experience of women over many nations and three continents.” He’s been married, for the purposes of this book, three times. Because this site should be suitable for all ages, let’s just say that there are aspects of female life it would be nearly impossible to hide from an experienced male roommate, much less a female housekeeper, for so many years. In the book, Watson notices that his friend has no need to shave after two days. Surely, after all of their trips together, he would have noticed this before. Likewise, Holmes’ drug use, which is alluded to in the book, would have, on occasion, put her in positions in which she would not have full control over herself, making discovery more likely. Couple this with a physician’s knowledge of female anatomy (not just the obvious parts), and it’s difficult to believe that Watson has never figured it out. The author tries to salvage this with what amounts to his ability to see and not observe, but physicians do observe others’ physical characteristics, and I can’t imagine why, once his curiosity was piqued, he would not investigate.

One could argue, however, that this Watson is a bit of a…well, isn’t the famous appellation “Boobus britannicus”? Basically, this is the Watson who likes jam.‡  Although he is very funny at times, he’s really out of character, and it’s hard to believe that even a man who needs romance is able to pursue another woman so ardently when his last wife (and their miscarried infant) is barely cold in the grave. Likewise, when cocaine poisoning forces Holmes to revisit her previous experience with withdrawal, Watson leaves her with a French couple who are basically strangers so he can pursue the mystery back in London. Holmes doesn’t send him; it’s his idea, and one which seems completely antithetical to his character. The French couple–a retired concert violinist and his wife, who have lost their only child–seem to have no real purpose in the story except to serve as Holmes’ caretakers in Watson’s stead, to make sure he doesn’t undress his raving friend. There’s an amusing bit with a motorcar, a sweet bit with a violin, and they take in one of the culprit’s victims in the end, but I kept waiting for them to prove untrustworthy, and found them superfluous when they did not. Other secondary characters, such as Constance Moriarty’s lover, Geoffrey Wickham, are well-drawn and interesting.

And Holmes? After a slightly rough start with the young Lucy, Ms. Bridge’s Sherlock Holmes is just what one might expect: she’s impatient, clever, forthright, and has a sharp tongue. There are the familiar canonical phrases, with just enough variation to make them original. However, Lucy Holmes has a depth and capacity for self-examination that I didn’t foresee. Although she’s read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she chose her path for more personal than political reasons, and her consequences have been personal as well.  Middle age has become, inevitably, a time of uncomfortable reflection, and all she knew in her thirties no longer seems as certain. She has that typically feminine moment of seeing her mother in the mirror, the bitterly common dilemma that the one she loves doesn’t know she’s alive, and the universally human realization that, in making her choices, she may well have rendered their alternatives impossible. For the best of all possible reasons, she’s built her life on a fundamental deception; her attempts to grapple with this decision and its fallout are truly poignant.

This brings us back to that argument in the car. My husband, who is not a Sherlockian, argued that, if the story is good, canon shouldn’t matter. I had more difficulty reconciling a very well-written story full of depth and insight with the plausibility problems, some of which contradict canon. As I told my spouse, when a group of people call the works of their favorite author “The Canon,” they’re sending a not-so-subtle message.

Where to put the emphasis? That was my problem. Conan Doyle had the answer. His “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” has to be one of the goofier Holmes stories. In it, an aging professor hoping to impress his young fiancée injects himself with ape serum and ends up becoming ape-like himself. No, really. But behind the implausible scenario is a touching glimpse of the unpleasant realities of aging. Making Sherlock Holmes a woman seems outlandish, but in playing “what if,” Ms. Bridges is able to make us think about issues ranging from “the thin line between good and evil,” to what it really meant for  the Great Detective to push aside “the softer emotions.” There is gain, and there is loss, and who’s to say which is greater in the end?

My Dear Watson  is available from your usual online suspects, as well as the MX Publishing site and the Baker Street Babes’ online bookstore. Ms. Bridges also writes popular children’s books. You can learn more about her, and her books, at http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/.  I’m curious about your views on this book,  canonicity, gender-bending, etc. Be the first commenter and win a copy of My Dear Watson, or the upcoming anthology currently being prepared in support of the Undershaw Preservation Trust.

Star Rating: For the first time ever, I’ve decided to give a book a “dual” star rating. If you highly value canonicity, My Dear Watson rates 3 1/2 stars out of 5, or “Flawed, but still worth your while.” If you give greater weight to story, My Dear Watson rates 4 out of 5, “Well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*My Dear Watson has a very interesting history. It was, in fact, published in Japan in 1992, after it impressed judges in an international competition for unpublished mystery authors (an experience you can read about here: http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/writing-backwards/). New York publishers, however, are notoriously hard to please, so the book languished almost two decades before finding a new home at MX.

**It devolved into something like this. Brett: “You’re too sensitive.”  Leah: “You won’t ever let me score a point.” Ultimate outcome: stalemate, as usual.

***Examples include: Billy Tipton, James Barry, Albert Cashier, James Gray, and pirate Anne Bonny. If you do a web search for these (and others), you’ll find that most of them are fairly easy to “see through.” Several, however, are not.

✝Unless, say, it’s your last name. And if it is–how cool!

✝✝ Let’s say it together, shall we? “It’s all fine.”

✝✝✝ In fact, a couple of items I initially believed were errors proved, upon inspection, to be correct, or open to interpretation.

‡See http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=210 ; “Boobus britannicus”  was Edmund L. Pearson’s description of Watson in 1932.
 

9 Comments

Filed under AU (Alternative Universe), Four-star reviews, Genderbend, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Margaret Park Bridges, Moriarty, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages

9 responses to “Bridges, Margaret Park. My Dear Watson. London: MX, 2011*

  1. Interesting review. I am okay with gender changes; pastiches and adaptations are always alternate worlds of a sort. I guess that applies to canonical consistency as well (even Doyle had some trouble with it)–although that won’t stop me from taking note of all of them. And on that note, Mary Shelley didn’t write *Vindication*; her mother did.

  2. So funny! I was stressing about a grammatical error just then, and you caught a much bigger one! Change made–thanks so much!

    You know, I generally consider myself fairly liberal when it comes to pastiche. I will read just about anything. There are very few books in which I don’t find something to enjoy. But everything changes when I put the reviewer hat on. Then I have to think about what others are looking for, because if I like a book, I’m pretty much saying “hey–you’ll be glad you spent money on this.” I’ve learned that many readers are much pickier than I am, and this weighs heavily on me when I review a book. I did consider that once you make Holmes a woman, you’re essentially in AU territory, and perhaps canon details are less important, or do not apply at all. But those details are what make Holmes and Watson who they are. It’s a bit ironic that the man who said he didn’t let details get in the way of a good story has a legion of fans devoted to those very details, but there you are, lol! In the end, for me, the emotional depth of the book trumps the other issues I mentioned, but I was very aware that this would not be the case for everyone.

    • Excellent points. As a reviewer, you are aiding the reader to make a choice, and that is a responsibility. It is ironic about Doyle and the details, but we wouldn’t have so many details to fuss over if he had been more careful with them.

      On a more shallow note, did I just win a book?

      • Yup! Leave me your address, either here (where I won’t approve the comment, so it stays private) or on FB, and let me know which one you want!

  3. This is really interesting! I have recently watched some cannon bending Sherlock films from the 70’s and of course with the more recent incarnations bending things as well, I am not opposed to ‘what ifs’ in sherlock. I think I would read this simply for the experience and fun of the idea but view it as purely for what it is, a what if and not alter my idea of the canon.

  4. Joshua Duncan

    Hello there. A friend directed me to your blog because you reviewed a book I had reviewed on Amazon. First, I’d like to say that I enjoyed your take immensely. However, I would like to add my two cents.

    I think you appreciate the creative license in recasting Holmes as a woman. This really isn’t a matter of canon, because otherwise, we would have to accept that the author believes that Doyle actually did write Holmes as a woman. You no doubt understand the difference between violating the cannon and this, so I won’t dwell on it.

    Nevertheless, I would like to defend the canonical status My Dear Watson. The first issue you list (quite impressively, I might say, who else knows the Sherlock timeline so well?) is not so much a flaw, but a choice. How tedious would it have been if Holmes had recited a catalog of everything he (she?) had written before the year 1903. And, what is perhaps more important, what exactly would have motivated him (her?) to do so? And, as far as I can see, this is the only real canonical argument you have. All your other criticisms are based on elements introduced in this novel, and you don’t cite anything that is in the Doyle account that contradicts them.

    Not to be glib, but canonically speaking, just about everything Sherlock says or does in unbelievable in one way or another. But your the issues you list are for the most part based on believability. I’ll just comment on a those that I think were the most effective arguments against the novel. Sure, the time Sherlock spent at school with Mycroft was a stretch, but again, nothing that Doyle wouldn’t have tried.

    While the fact that Watson’s medical training should have given him enough insight into Holmes’s secret is a good point, who is to say he hasn’t suspected it? In the end of the novel, Watson complicity denies her gender. It is no more speculative for me to claim Watson had already been in denial than it is for you to claim he definitely didn’t know. Textually speaking, he never says, wow, I really didn’t see that coming. Furthermore, some men can go a week without shaving. It isn’t uncommon. And Watson, as a doctor, would very likely have met many such men, thus making it less likely that he would regard such a fact as suspicious. Think of the difference between how coworkers react when you show flu symptoms, and how a doctor does. These types of things don’t affect them as much. As for assuming that during a drug induced stupor, Sherlock would have revealed her secret, that is purely outside the canon. Sherlock only did drugs in solitude, when the period between cases became too long. I, in full knowledge that I could be wrong, am willing to bet that Doyle never depicted Holmes as mentally incapacitated in Watson’s presence. It is in complete contradiction to the explanation of Holmes’s drug use (and, right now, I am actually very worried that you will, with no effort, refer to just such an event).

    For these reasons, and those that you explain yourself, I find it odd that you rated the canonicity so low. After all, your criticisms are based on believability, not canon.

    I will end this with one last defense. While so many other Holmes stories resurrect Moriarty and elevate his rivalry to levels no where mentioned in the Doyle stories, this novel leaves Moriarty as Doyle wrote him, dead after a brief encounter with Holmes. For that alone, I think the author should be praised in her attempt to respect the canon.

    Again, I enjoyed your review. Thank you for considering my response.

    • First of all, I just want to say, that I had almost finished an amazing, exquisitely reasoned reply that was, quite frankly a work of art. Then I deleted it. I can’t find it anywhere. So if anything I say below makes no sense whatsoever, just remember that the first comment was brilliant.

      Re-creation follows:

      Ooohhhh! I love this! Are you sure you’re not Brett? *looks around suspiciously*. Seriously, though, thanks for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful, meticulously reasoned reply. It’s the kind of thing you want on a review blog. This, and Resa’s comment about AU, above, definitely highlight the discussions a book like this one inspires.

      I do think you might be right in saying that my canonicity rating may be affected by my problems with plausibility. The bit that really bothered me was knowing that Holmes did go to the baths with Watson, and that a doctor (Sir Leslie Oakshott, a prominent (fictional) surgeon) had seen to his wound when Baron Gruner’s thugs beat the mess out of him. Of course, one way around the latter would be having Holmes pay Oakshott off to hide her secret (kind of a stretch, but still). I see no way around the Turkish baths (seriously–everything I’ve tried in the last 10 minutes has a problem associated with it!).

      I also want to clarify my statement about the cocaine a little. Holmes may have injected in private, but Watson caught him at it at least once, and he was concerned about it; obviously, then, it had some negative influence on Holmes, and on their partnership. I do not envision Holmes as a dysfunctional addict, but having read some about the impact of 10% injections on the lives of some of his contemporaries, I expect that’s wishful thinking on my part. At any rate, I was primarily thinking about withdrawal symptoms, and the physical care a patient in withdrawal requires. Watson tells us that he “weaned” Holmes from the drug; in Ms. Bridge’s book, Holmes says she quit on her own. I combined the two, assuming that Watson made some attempts, but Holmes was ultimately successful alone. This may have been overthinking on my part…I may have been guilty of that…before…many times…. :)

      Of course, if you go with Resa’s comment above, and my husband’s argument, all of this is AU, and therefore legal. Then the question, of course, is, if you don’t use the canon, are you really writing a Holmes and Watson story? At some point, I don’t think you are. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think this is AT ALL what is happening with My Dear Watson. It’s just hard to reconcile Lucy Holmes with every little detail.Something will inevitably fall through the cracks.

      Honestly, this review caused me more angst than any I’ve written yet. Upon re-reading, I don’t think I made it as clear as I should have that I did like this book. I really don’t see why it didn’t find a publisher earlier than it did; I assume market factors were in play. For me, personally, a good writing style and emotional resonance are the trump cards. But an odd thing happened when I started writing this blog: people started reading it. I really didn’t expect that. And once I realized that it wasn’t just me nattering on about stuff I liked to, say, my mom (waves at Mom), I knew I had to think about my audience. A quick check of people on FB, and reading others’ blogs showed me that many people who love Sherlock Holmes were very concerned about canonical detail (more than I expected, actually), so I realized that I would have to weight that in reviews. It also means that there’s a whole list of books that, frankly, I love, but which do more than violate canon: they have ridiculous plot holes, unbelievable relationships, and everyone’s out of character. I cannot bear to give them the 1/2 star reviews that I know in my heart they deserve, so I can never review them. Excuse this bit of digression; I’ve just been thinking a lot about this lately.

      SO! If you’ve read this far, I just want to say that I love this kind of comment! Send more, everyone! I may not reply to all of them, but as long as they’re clean and nice, I’ll approve them, and I hope others will continue the discussion! You hardly need me for that! Book reviewing is extremely subjective; the more opinions, the better!

      • Joshua Duncan

        I am so relieved that you appreciated my comment. It cost me some worry posting it. It would be possible to spend all day discussing this one issue. Suffice it to say, I agree with you, the big divergence in this novel had a cascade effect on other details (for example, the Turkish baths, good call by the way).

        It is often observed that Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed character in film. With a legacy that broad, there are bound to be compromises made. Other iconic characters have similar “versions.” I am thinking of James Bond, and Batman. One of my least favorite Sherlocks is the new BBC series “Sherlock” (my apologies to the fans) which seems to me to be more similar to the new Doctor Who series, which is itself very different from the source on which it is based. The similarities are likely due to the fact that both are written by Steven Moffat. One more comment on the new series, the Mycroft in it seems to share more in common with the Mycroft of the Quinn Fawcett novels; they are both high-functioning spy masters very unlike the low-functioning (but brilliant) civil servant in Doyle. This just goes to show how broad the Sherlock legacy has become.

        The point I am attempting to get at is, I share some of your concern for canonicity. But I sincerely felt this novel did as well. Aside from its very big diversion from canon, I felt that this book contained much more of the Victorian rationalism than many of the new Sherlock Holmes, especially the steam-punk influences of the recent movies (thought I must admit I did in enjoy them). And, its attention to canon detail as well as the frequent references to ephemera of early 20th century England were, in my opinion, impressive.

        Again, I very much enjoyed your review, I am amazed by your command of the details involved, and I am happy to know you enjoy a spirited debate. Unfortunately, I am not Brett. But, he sounds like a fantastic guy.