If you’re a writer, and I know some of you are, you’ve probably heard of “NaNoWriMo,”* the annual event that encourages you to make November the month you write your novel–or at least 50,000 words of it. Have you ever done it? I have, twice. This is how it went:
1. Determine I will do it. This time.
2. Sign up.
3. Write about 1,000 words per day in current WIP (work in progress). For, like, two days.
4. Evening out.
5. Sick kid.
6. Intense FB debate about…something.
7. Veteran’s Day
8. Who am I kidding?
And that’s it for another year. Do you know what Amy Thomas** did for NaNoWriMo 2011?
1. Wrote a book.
This alone is a praiseworthy achievement. But then, she…
2. Published it.
The Detective and the Woman is that book.
Now, I can hear what some of you are saying. “Holmes and Irene again! He wasn’t in love with her! He just kept her photo to remind him to be humble/for a paperweight/to hide the morocco case in the drawer from Watson!” Relax! Although I myself have no problem with Holmesian hookups, I have to admit I was dubious as well, mainly because I am not a fan of Miss Adler, particularly as she is often portrayed. Still, I was curious, and that curiosity was rewarded.
If you remember, Irene Adler was the woman who outwitted Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” At the end of this story, she keeps her indiscreet photograph of the King of Bohemia, marries her barrister, Godfrey Norton, and manages to tweak The Great Detective at his doorstep. Watson writes of Mrs. Adler-Norton, “To Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” He then rushes on to explain to us that Holmes was not, in fact, in love with her, just…impressed.***
Ms. Thomas begins her book some three years after this event, as Irene stares down at the body of her husband, who’s just died of a heart attack. She isn’t sorry he’s gone. The congenial, popular man she’d stood with in the church of St. Monica turned out to be a controlling, abusive husband who’d married her primarily so he could use her fortune to maintain his newly-inherited Yorkshire estate. Her dreams of a bucolic life away from the constant demands of performance and society dissolved into a horror of physical and mental cruelty at the hands of a sociopath who convinced everyone else that he was an adoring spouse. Fortunately, Godfrey Norton didn’t expect to die young; Irene’s money was never made a part of his estate. As she manufactures tears for the physician and servants and plays the part of the grieving widow, she waits for her solicitor, James Barnett, to legally disentangle her bank account. That done, she resumes her singing career and heads to the States for a tour; in the end, it’s what she knows best. She will never again, she resolves, trust her fate to a man.
It’s during a performance in Orlando, Florida, that she notices someone strikingly familiar in the audience, and she’s not surprised to find him waiting for her in her dressing room afterwards. Perhaps she should be; after all, he’s supposed to be dead, but instead of fainting, she offers him (bad) coffee, and they trade stories.
Holmes isn’t there just to catch up, however. Mycroft, apparently more than happy to make use of his younger brother’s suddenly free schedule, has sent him to find Irene on the basis of a threatening letter which found its way into his hands through oddly coincidental circumstances. The letter, which Holmes was instructed not to open until he reached Florida–possibly because Mycroft thought he would balk at another meeting with The Woman–seems to indicate that Irene is the target of a (possibly international) plot. Or is she?
After her experiences with the King of Bohemia, Godfrey Norton, any number of men in her past, and even Sherlock Holmes, Irene is not in a trusting mood. Holmes’ difficulties with women are well-documented.✝ Still, they’re able to put their doubts about one another aside (sometimes with difficulty) in the interests of solving the case. Their efforts lead them into both the highest echelons and lowest dregs of Floridian society, requiring quite a few costume changes, acting skills and outright subterfuge. Irene finds this last often difficult–particularly when it is directed at her. The plot has so many twists and turns that it’s actually hard to tell you much more than this without venturing into Spoilerville. Just remember, nothing is what it seems. Unless it is. When Mycroft’s involved, you never know.
It isn’t hard to write a Sherlock Holmes’ pastiche; people churn them out all the time. What’s hard is to write a good one. To achieve this, the writer must successfully address three factors: setting, character, and plot. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Many would argue that one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes has stayed popular for over a century is that his gas-lit, Victorian-on-the-cusp-of-Edwardian London carries a mystery, familiarity and poignancy that still fascinates. However, like many of us, Ms. Thomas couldn’t just spend months in London to soak up the atmosphere and get all the buildings right. So she wisely chose to set her story in the Ft. Myers area of which she has intimate knowledge. She does a good job of integrating its history and prominent people into the book. I was worried, for instance, when Thomas Edison made an appearance (the Edisons wintered in Ft. Myers). But he blended in quite well, and there was no magical invention to serve as deus ex machina in the final moments of the adventure.✝✝ I particularly liked how Ms. Thomas describes Holmes’ view of his new surroundings:
He had always been affected by atmospheres. The hubbub of London was like a steady hum that called to him and told him secrets about its inner workings. Florida was different, almost silent, save for the growl of the animals that prowled the night-time. He couldn’t feel a pulse…underneath the beating sun, and the lack of bearings unsettled him. (p.42)
At the same time, she avoids the temptation of having every other scene scream, “Look! Sherlock Holmes is in America!” No quirky characters, no allusions to Disney, no gratuitous mentions of US politics, no funny dialects. We do find out Irene doesn’t like the Coca-Cola Edison has delivered in; I felt a bit sorry for her.
Sherlockian pastiche plots are difficult because they generally require a mystery to be successful–and that mystery has to stay a mystery for most of the book. Authors vary in their ability to pull this one off. I’ve admitted before that I am not the best armchair detective; I’m along for the ride. But Ms. Thomas does an excellent job of parceling out information on a need-to-know basis. Even though the reader spends half of the adventure in Holmes’ head, the detective remains secretive, and even when I was fairly sure I had it all figured out, I still had one surprise coming. There were moments in which I felt my credulity strained, but within a few pages, Ms. Thomas addressed those lengthy marginal notes, reducing them to ballpoint bluster. In the end, however, the reader has to accept that the elaborate plot was necessary for the villain to achieve his ends, and that Holmes would be willing, so early in the Hiatus, to blow his cover. I can accept that the culprit would want to exercise that level of control over his plot, and the author does address the latter issue, but these are two instances in which you may need to play along. You won’t feel bad about doing so.
Finally, of course, there are the characters. Irene Adler is a polarizing character to many, and the idea of her having any sort of relationship with Sherlock Holmes even more so. I was very happy with the way Ms. Thomas portrays The Woman. Here, she’s not a vixen, not a thief, and not, thankfully, a Mary Sue. At one point, Holmes describes her as a “nor’easter,” but I think that just reflects his limited experience. She’s a regular woman emerging from an experience that challenged her every notion of who she is; most readers will be able to identify with her reactions and concerns. Her greatest strength is her ability to keep her head in trying circumstances. This is useful, not only when someone is holding a gun to the head of the woman next to you, but also when Sherlock Holmes is trying to explain why he didn’t tell you a rather important aspect of his plan–one that concerned you. Forced once more into trying circumstances due to others’ machinations, Irene Adler finds herself acting as Watson. She does a fair job, but in the end, it’s not a role she relishes.
I liked Amy Thomas’ Sherlock Holmes as well. Holmes is always a tricky character; everyone seems to have a different view of him. This detective is, perhaps, a bit softer than others, but not by much. He’s not a misogynist at all, just a regular man bewildered by women’s more emotional reactions to life.In one priceless scene, for example, he thinks about how one of Watson’s bad moods could be easily short-circuited with ale and a pork pie, and doubts that would work with his new partner. He finds Irene a useful companion, someone intelligent to bounce ideas off of, but he’s not sure how far he can trust her, or of her ability to fulfill the assignments he gives her. In his other aspects–his facility with costumes, his faculty for working for days without rest, his quick reasoning and ability to sacrifice others’ interests to solve a case–he is the Holmes we all recognize. I did feel that, so soon after Reichenbach, there might have been a little more exploration of his thoughts and feelings on that split-second decision and all of its ramifications.He misses Watson, compares him (generally favorably) to Irene, but there’s less of this than one might think. And, as I mentioned before, he didn’t seem nearly as concerned about others learning his identity as might be expected. It could be argued, however, that Holmes’ ability to bury disturbing feelings under the weight of logic kept him sane during the Hiatus, and helped him become the Great Detective, so these are only minor caveats.
Speaking of which…. Because this is, after all, The Detective and the Woman, I must address the inevitable question: do they? Well, they don’t go off to Montenegro and have Nero Wolfe, if that’s what you’re asking, and Irene doesn’t show up later in Montpellier for, um, coal-tar derivatives.✝✝✝ But when they part–she to Sussex, and he to Tibet, they part as friends. If that’s enough for you, stop there. If, like me, you want the full misty-eyed experience, read on a little further.
NaNoWriMo encourages writers to just pour their guts out onto paper, without thought for plot, coherence, character development–the niceties of writing. I don’t think Amy Thomas took that advice. In The Detective and the Woman, she takes on one of the most challenging themes in Sherlockian pastiche and handles it deftly. It’s an excellent first book and not, hopefully, her last.
I’d like to know your thoughts on this book, Irene Adler, Sherlock in America, or the Great Hiatus. Leave your comments below. Second commenter gets a copy of The Detective and the Woman or another book in my stash.
The Detective and the Woman is available through traditional online sites. It is also available from the Baker Street Babes’ shop; purchasing it there will help the Babes continue to add much-needed bandwidth for their popular podcasts.
Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”
*National Novel Writing Month
**Yes, that Amy Thomas, of Baker Street Babes fame!
***He afterwards calls her “the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” Practitioners of The Game have a field day with this one.
✝Particularly in fan fiction.
✝✝Don’t laugh. People do this.
✝✝✝For the first, see Baring-Gould. For the second, see Laurie King.