Ah, Spring! When, as the poet says, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”* Yes, dear reader, this book features a Holmesian Hook-up, so if the idea of Sherlock Holmes kissing a woman for reasons other than obtaining information on blackmailers disturbs you, you might want to wait until the next review. Romantics–follow me!
It’s May of 1903, and the staff of Larchbanks, a country house in Sussex, has recently suffered a tremendous loss. Sir Arthur Fallowes, a Royal Army Major who had seen service in India, has passed away of a lung ailment, leaving behind no relation but a niece, who herself may have perished in the Boxer Rebellion.** Being a kind-hearted man, the Major has stipulated in his will that his housekeeper (and through her insistence to his solicitor, the entire staff) will remain employed at the house for six months after his death. The house may be let during that period, while efforts are made to locate the niece or perhaps her biological child, but afterwards Larchbanks and its contents can be sold.
Major Fallowes’ cherished housekeeper is one Charlotte Dodson, a widow in her thirties with an eleven year-old son whom she has managed to send to a decent boarding school (keeping him conveniently offscreen for most of the story). A vicar’s daughter and later, with her husband, the owner of a school, Mrs. Dodson is intelligent, self-contained, hard-working, and highly disciplined. She is also lonely. One of her previous tasks had been to help the Major (suffering slightly from dementia) write and edit his memoirs, which provided her with both an intellectual outlet and some companionship. Now, with her employer gone, and just reaching the point of widowhood in which she’s looking more towards her future than her past, she feels her isolation more keenly. Although she views the other Larchbanks women as family, Violet and Rose are young and flighty, while Mrs. Clithoe, the cook, is older and…rather formidable. Nor has she found a kindred spirit among women in the nearby village; in fact several, such as the vicar’s sister, Miss Hanover, regard her with a sort of jealous hostility.
But Mrs. Dodson (let’s call her “Charlotte,” now) squares her shoulders and carries on. The Major has left her a legacy in the form of his library (books and furniture), which she can keep or sell. This will help her keep her son in school at least a while longer, and support her while she seeks another position. She isn’t thrilled by her new solitary life, but she accepts it with grace. In the meantime, she hopes Major Fallowes’ solicitor, William Bagshaw, will find a tenant who is not too horrible, and that she can disabuse Violet of her notion that London is the place to be. The girl is rather too enamoured with sensational newspaper stories of escaped criminals, exploding Sussex houses, and even a suspected vampire victim.
Her first hope is dashed by Chapter Three. The new tenant of Larchbanks is one Mr. Sigerson, a man who does not make a good first impression. He’s all wrapped up in a scarf, for example, as if he were an invalid. He isn’t all that interested in the house’s architectural features (with the exception of the priest’s hole), and his simultaneously proprietary and dismissive view of Charlotte’s beloved library rankles her. Nor is she happy to hear that he had specified a place with minimal staff and no children.*** Still, he doesn’t have a great deal of time to play house hunter,† and soon he is subjecting the household to his eccentric ways, his peculiar personality, and his bees.
Still, for all of his strangeness, there is something a little…fascinating about Mr. Sigerson. Charlotte finds herself drawn to him almost as much as she wants to strangle him. And while the new tenant wanted to be live as isolated and secretive an existence as possible (he works late, sees to his bees very early, and tries never to leave the house during the main hours of the day), he is also someone who needs to bounce his ideas off of an intelligent listener; he’s happy enough to do this with “Dodson.” The chemistry that develops between them is a surprise only to the participants.††
Fortunately for community morals, however, both Holmes and Dodson have other very pressing concerns to keep them busy. There’s the strange behavior of the new curate, for example. And why did Harold Bagshaw–the solicitor’s nephew, who nurtures an infatuation for Charlotte–try to steal an important letter from her? Is there a real Sussex Vampire after all? Two suspicious deaths make for a reporters’ feeding frenzy and really, given the two marks on her neck, how else could Miss Hanover have died? Add to this the Orb of Kezir: an Indian treasure Major Fallowes has bequeathed to Charlotte yet, in his dotage, neglected to say where he’d hidden it.††† For Charlotte, of course, there’s the additional mystery of Mr. Sigerson’s sometimes odd, even sinister behavior. Could he be responsible for the murders? And why is he so…anxious?
The Affair of the Incognito Tenant belongs, ultimately, to that mystery subgenre known as the “cozy.” These stories tend to be calmer, without the violence, sex, bad language, gore, or amped-up suspense one finds in darker works. Cozies also often feature a smaller setting (rural village, seaside resort, manor house), an amateur detective (in this case, Charlotte Dodson), quirky characters (Mrs. Clithoe with her noisy tantrums or “spasms” fills the bill here), and a smattering of amusing incidents. Villains are, of course, bad people, but the full horror of their evil tends not to be fully explored. Charlotte and her strange employer face several miscreants, in fact–two of whom have the potential to be very frightening–but, following in the cozy tradition, they are mostly just unpleasant.
In her acknowledgements, Ms. Roberts writes that she worked on The Incognito Tenant (in various versions) for fifteen years. While obviously most of us would like to finish our novels a little faster, in this case, the time was well-spent. The characters are nicely drawn individuals. Holmes is recognizable, if in a slightly softer incarnation, and Watson is the perceptive, helpful gentleman we know and love, even if he does accidentally blow Holmes’ cover. Charlotte Dodson is a very appealing character. Although she is given the apparently requisite deduction scene in which she is unimpressed with Holmes and does some tricks of her own, she does not, fortunately, become the “smarter-than-you” cliché. She is intelligent, dutiful, and a loving mother, but she can also be stodgy, rigid, and judgmental. The fact that, every once in awhile, you can see a more passionate side carefully hidden away only serves to make her human.
The story itself is well-crafted. Although at times the various subplots make it seem a little cluttered, everything fits together in the end. The hidden jewel, the vampire hysteria, and a rather improbable weapon from an apprentice of von Herder may not appeal to everyone, but they’re all handled in the low-key fashion befitting a cozy. If you’re looking for a true “puzzler,” The Incognito Tenant may be a little disappointing, as you will almost always know what is going on before Charlotte does, but hey–sometimes it’s nice to feel like The Great Detective!
There aren’t many canonical details to fuss about in this book. The chronology of the story, however, ends up being a bit troublesome. The Incognito Tenant begins in May, 1903, with the exact date unspecified. This is fortunate, as Baring-Gould sets “The Adventure of the Three Gables” in late May of 1903, at which point Holmes has vacated Larchbanks. Since the story moves quickly (and a quick text search shows no results for “June”), this could work.‡ We then must face, however, the problem of Holmes’ retirement. Judging by events in The Incognito Tenant, he’s already living on the Sussex Downs, keeping bees and working on his magnum opus, a “Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, With Some Hints on the Segregation of the Queen.” Baring-Gould believes that Holmes retired in October or November of 1903–which is reasonable, as he is mentioned as being retired in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” published at the end of 1904. So! Is it possible to reconcile this discrepancy? Just possibly, if one believes that Holmes purchased his house in Sussex earlier than Baring-Gould believes (why he never bothered to check real estate transactions in the area is anyone’s guess) and, for awhile, divided his time between London and the more peaceful environment of the coast. Even after he fully retired, I do think it reasonable to assume that he kept the flat at 221B as a pied à terre for occasional visits to London…and just in case his cottage was ever blown-up by criminals with grudges. I do have to say, however, that there was no reason that I can discern for setting the story in 1903. Or May, for that matter. Again going by Baring-Gould, stories set after Holmes’ retirement only need to account for “The Lion’s Mane” and “His Last Bow,” placing a huge swathe of time at the writer’s disposal. Sometimes, however, your original characters can be insistent on a particular date; I am grateful that, in this instance, the conflict was manageable.
Of course I realize that only a few of you care that desperately about dates. What many of you may be concerned about, however, is the whole question of the attraction between Holmes and Dodson. In fact, some of you may choose not to read the book based on this alone. Others, like me, may be tolerant of Sherlockian romance if it’s done well. So–is it?
I think so. Charlotte Dodson avoids, in my opinion at least, some of the major traps her pastiche sisters often fall into. She is not a Mary Sue. Although she is bright, and reasons her way through several situations, she’s not showy, nor is she always correct. The author never has a scene in which she “puts Holmes in his place.” The best word I can think of to describe her is “mature.” Of all of the love interests authors have proposed for Holmes, Mrs. Dodson is, so far, probably the best fit I’ve seen: a woman who is more likely to be a true supportive helpmeet, rather than one who competes with his occupation, or tries to share it with him as co-detective. I suppose it is old-fashioned, but really, if your occupation requires you to run off to a client’s house at a moment’s notice, or to bury yourself in a case for days or weeks on end, someone needs to take care of the details of life. Charlotte Dodson could fill that role nicely. But will she? I agreed with Ms. Robert’s conclusion, but not really with the reasoning behind it. It would be interesting to know if you think the same.
The Affair of the Incognito Tenant is a light, cozy mystery perfect for those looking for just a bit of fun and romance on a rainy day, and a book which bears up well on a second reading. It may have taken Lora Roberts fifteen years to bring Charlotte Dodson to life, but I suspect fans of both Sherlock Holmes and the cozy will be glad she did.
Lora Roberts writes under several names: Lora Roberts, Lora Roberts Smith, and Lora R. Smith. She has written two other mystery series, one featuring Liz Sullivan, a freelance writer and amateur detective, and the other showcasing Bridget Montrose, who solves mysteries while raising three young children. You can find a little more about her here: http://www.loraroberts.net, but the link provided to her new blog will lead you to a page which has never been used. The Affair of the Incognito Tenant is available on Amazon.com, both as a new paperback and in a Kindle version. It is not available from Barnes and Noble.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5: “Well worth your time and money.”
*It was Tennyson, and we often forget the “lightly.”
**The Boxer Rebellion was an anti-imperialist, anti-Christian uprising in China between 1898 and 1901.
See a fairly detailed discussion of it here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion
***Mr., erm, Sigerson has an excellent reason for this, but I don’t believe that Charlotte ever thinks it through.
†Sherlock Holmes/House Hunters crossover. Please, someone, make this happen!
††It’s actually amazing that, in a house full of women, none of them notice–pretty much ever. Watson (when he finally shows) picks up on it instantly. This might give us a clue as to how self-absorbed or not-so-quick Charlotte’s coworkers are.
†††In the note he left her, it’s obvious that he believes he showed her the hiding place, but he did not; Charlotte believes that in remembering the incident, he confused her with his late sister.
‡Baring-Gould decided on May, for “The Adventure of the Three Gables” based on the time in which geraniums (mentioned in the story) are put out into beds, and the prevalence of pneumonia (Maberley’s cause of death) in the spring. He derives the year 1903 from the necessity of placing “The Adventure of the Red Circle” in 1901–when finger-printing began at Scotland Yard, and when Watson is living in Baker Street; putting “The Illustrious Client” in its given date of 1902; and his placing of “The Mazarin Stone” in the summer of 1903. According to Watson, he hasn’t “seen Holmes ‘for some days'” (Baring-Gould, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 1967), leading Baring-Gould to place 3GAB betweem ILLU and MAZA, hence, May of 1903. Make of this what you will!