Whenever someone asks about my favorite books, I generally mention Amy Belding Brown’s Mr. Emerson’s Wife, a beautifully written imagining of the life of Lidian Emerson, wife of Transcendental writer Ralph Waldo. Trust me, you don’t want to read it while wearing mascara. And as soon as they hear the title, without fail, the person asks “Have you ever read Ahab’s Wife? I just loved that book!”
I haven’t read Ahab’s Wife, by today’s author, Sena Jeter Naslund, yet. But it’s a NYT Notable Book and a national bestseller, as are her novels Abundance and Four Spirits. She’s won the Harper Lee Prize, and been published in several high-profile literary magazines. I tell you this so that you’ll know that Ms. Naslund is a talented, highly regarded author.
It takes more than that to write a good book about Sherlock Holmes.
“Sherlock Holmes was dead: to begin with,” Watson tells us, echoing A Christmas Carol for a story which unfolds over the holiday week in 1922. Holmes has been dead for two years, and Watson, living at 221B again with an invalid Mrs. Hudson and her nurse, is missing him. Missing him so much, in fact, that he decides he will write the Great Detective’s biography and puts out a notice in the newspaper, seeking interviews and correspondence. He’ll need them; Naslund’s Watson is a forgetful sort.
As soon as the ad appears, however, the doctor’s life gets interesting. He receives anonymous letters urging him to quit the biography, his life depending on it. He’s stalked by a mysterious old woman in red, believes someone is breaking into the flat and slicing pages from Holmes’ commonplace books, and at least three times is visited by spirits–not the Christmas type, but of Holmes himself. Looking into the violin case on a whim, he finds a note to his friend from a mysterious “Sigerson,” bequeathing Holmes the instrument. Wiggins, now consulting psychiatrist at St Giles’, appears at 221B (Watson has trouble remembering him), searching for an escaped patient who might be in the neighborhood. During his visit, he reveals that Holmes secretly financed his education and the two corresponded. The next day, Watson meets the former Irregular the the hospital, hoping for the letters, but instead fainting with shock when an aggressive patient, “Nannerl,”* growls at him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Wiggins never gives him the letters. Oh, and the hospital’s therapy dog** is killed (silently) outside the office door.
Again, one must accept the premise that all those breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and ham have hardened 70 year-old Watson’s arteries, and he’s forgotten some of the most exciting, intriguing episodes of his life. The woman in red is as unfamiliar to him as Wiggins. He doesn’t remember seeing the violin-note before, and he can’t for the life of him remember who Sigerson was. Deciding the answers must lie in an unpublished case, he spends the remainder of the book using his old notebooks, Holmes’ journal, and, finally, the story manuscript to uncover, at last, the story of a doomed romance that unfolded right under his nose as he saw, but never observed.
In most reviews, I’d leave off here and move on to the critique, so as to avoid spoilers. However, after some thought, I’ve decided these are necessary to explain why, in the end, Sherlock in Love receives the rating it does. Here, then, briefly, the rest of the story:
After a shady musician asks him to determine whether or not a violin is a Guarnerius, Holmes meets Victor Sigerson, violinist for the traveling Munich Opera Orchestra. Holmes is transfixed by the man’s playing (behavior Watson oddly finds remarkable), and intrigued by the fact that Sigerson seems to be fascinated by him. After a sort of pas de deux, involving games of snooker, Black Magic, waltzing and (for Watson) interminable violin lessons, Holmes confirms his suspicions that the orphaned “Victor” is actually “Violet” by hiding in a wardrobe and watching her disrobe, keeping the whole thing a secret from his best friend.
From his 1922 vantage point, Watson sees his friend fall in love, wonders why nothing came of it and then remembers–of course–Sigerson died, drowning in Lake Starnberg, handcuffed to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Holmes and Watson were part of this case, retained by Ludwig’s chief equerry, Richard Hornig, to help the monarch escape a ministerial plot to have him declared insane and deposed (thereby saving Bavaria’s finances). At first reluctant to take on the case, Holmes only does so when urged by Lestrade (here unaccountably taking the place of Mycroft) and informed that Sigerson is there, embroiled in this volatile situation. The adventure unfurls, with secret meetings, three castles, kidnapping, coach chases, coach wrecks, dungeons, lock picking, angry peasants, handcuffs and the aforementioned drowning, which leaves Holmes “morose,” yet “strangely settled.” Watson comes to the end of his manuscript to find the mysterious woman in red at his door.
Irene Adler is still beautiful, and she adds more to the story. Sigerson, it seems, did not drown after all; Irene finds her, bedraggled and alive, while walking in the area, where she is conveniently staying with the King of Bohemia. Over time, she gets to know Violet, who tells her all manner of useful information about Sherlock Holmes, even as her obsession with him pitches her into madness. Eventually, Irene marries Godfrey Norton, and Violet Sigerson voluntarily commits herself to St. Giles, where she has good and bad days until Watson’s advertisement appears. Fearing Violet could harm Watson, Irene sends those anonymous letters, but it’s lock-picking Violet/Nannerl who does the flat-breaking and page-cutting.
And now, just like another Christmas Eve spirit, she appears at the door, to give Watson the rest of the story, the reason why. And it’s quite simple. Violet is Sherlock’s half-sister, the child of his mother’s affair, sent to live with distant relatives and eventually ending up in Munich. She figured it out slightly before he did, and while the attraction was mutual, they determined nothing should come of it.*** She then took the opportunity to fake her own death when Ludwig II killed himself, hoping to spare Holmes the pain of an unfulfilled romance, or to keep the both of them from doing something they shouldn’t. She destroyed the commonplace books, killed the dog, and frightened Watson to preserve Holmes’ privacy, but has now decided that she wants her brother’s friend to tell her story, to “make her live.”
I have a bad habit, when reading, of skipping to the ending about half-way through, so I knew this was coming. The first time I read it, I needed brain bleach. The second time, I was calmer, more prepared, but this little twist still makes Sherlock in Love one of the worst Sherlock-in-love-stories I have ever read. In the end, I think, it comes down to a lack of respect for the character. Most people write Sherlockian pastiche because they love something about Conan Doyle’s work, whether it’s the puzzles, the gaslight, the friendship, or the personalities. And when they write, almost without exception, they write with a certain amount of respect, even affection. When Conan Doyle told William Gillette he could do whatever he liked with Sherlock Holmes, I doubt incest, even the thwarted kind, ever crossed his mind.
That, however, is not the only problem. The lack of respect also shows up in the rather careless treatment of canonical detail. Watson and Holmes, apparently, meet in 1886, not, as most experts agree, in 1881. We all know where Holmes got his violin, and Watson never referred to Irene Adler as “The Woman in Red,”**** although he believes he did. Far more egregious is the way Naslund puts Inspector Lestrade in Mycroft’s place. It’s Lestrade who refers Hornig to Holmes, and who persuades Holmes and Watson that taking on what seems to them a distasteful errand in service of a dissolute ruler is in the best interests of the British Empire, which hopes to avoid a united Germany as long as possible. Lestrade was never “the British governement,” and it would have taken no time at all to put in the right character. Even a famous quote is mangled. By having Holmes say “Once you have eliminated all the possibilities, then what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth,” Naslund effectively makes him ridiculous. Because once you have eliminated all the possibilities, you are left with nothing at all.
And speaking of character, Holmes and Watson don’t always stay in theirs. We’re asked to believe unbelievable things, such as Watson not remembering the significance of the name “Sigerson,” or even mentioning its connection to the Hiatus. And while Watson prefers writing to doctoring, it’s ridiculous to suppose that he wouldn’t notice certain physiological tells in “Victor,” or that he would agree to examine a patient with his eyes closed. For his part, Holmes is awfully emotional when begging Watson to go up to Victor’s rooms in his stead, and while he suspects the violinist’s true gender early on, he’s devious enough to have gotten confirmation without resorting to voyeurism. Victor/Violet verges upon being a Mary Sue: although she’s not beautiful, she’s talented, smart, good at everything from snooker to dancing to magic to deductions, and acceptably socially conscious. The fact that she physically attacks Watson and kills a dog doesn’t jibe with the rest of her character as Naslund paints her. True, she loses her mind and chooses a ridiculous way to solve her romantic dilemmas, but she’s miraculously functional at the end of the book.
Which brings up a more serious problem: implausibility. One of the big rules of writing, and romantic fiction in particular, is that problems shouldn’t be the kind easily solved if the characters had a conversation. There was never any real reason for Watson not to know Victor Sigerson was actually a woman. If Holmes chose to protect her secret at first so she could remain employed, he didn’t need to do so after she “died”; even the half-sister bit would have been a reasonable revelation, if the romantic feelings were left out. If he didn’t trust Watson early in their relationship, he certainly did after 34 years. Of course, Watson knowing this secret would effectively get rid of a good portion of the mystery, and render the story slightly less outré. We’re also expected to believe that, in the two years since Holmes’ death, Watson has never, not once, considered looking at that journal, when he knows where it is. Even if he felt some compunction about invading his friend’s privacy, loneliness and simple curiosity would have got the better of him. Why would Holmes hide the fact that he’s paying for Wiggins’ education, except that it serves the plot? Violet and her unsavory cousin Klaus are professional musicians who also have the time to run a traveling magic show, which again is to no purpose except that it gives Violet a reason to know how to pick locks and effect underwater escapes. And, while it’s common for actual historical figures to appear in pastiches, we’re treated to Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst; Sir Leslie Stephen, young Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Thoby; and seven year-old Albert Einstein–for reasons which in no way advance the plot. Finally, Violet’s reason for faking her death–to give Holmes “peace,” makes no sense. He seems to have achieved it before going to Bavaria, and while he loses some equilibrium, it’s apparent that she’s the one with the greater problem. His later correspondence with Wiggins suggests that he ultimately knew what had happened and, while he kept tabs on his sister, did not choose to contact her again. Even had Violet not been his sister, one gets the impression that Holmes dodged a destructive bullet, and knew it.
So, did I think this book completely without merit? Of course not. Ms. Naslund is an excellent stylist, able to evoke emotions and create vivid descriptions. She seamlessly interweaves Holmes’ and Watson’s mission to Bavaria with the known facts of Ludwig II’s life and death; in this instance, the historical cameos are apt and accurate. She has Holmes pull off some nice deductions, and his interview with Richard Hornig is very much in character. Her Watson is cranky, but after awhile, I got to like him that way. Her descriptions of his life without Holmes are poignant. I have to ask myself, if I were not a Holmes devotee, would I feel differently? The answer: probably not. The incest angle is hard to accept no matter who the characters and, coupled with plot contrivances and gaps in logic, ends up striking the fatal blow.
Sherlock in Love is available on Amazon.com and other major booksellers, as well as at independents such as The Poisoned Pen.
Star Rating: 2 out of 5, “Hit or miss, mostly miss. Only for the ‘completist.'”
*The escaped patient of the night before. She makes little excursions regularly.
**This is surely an anachronism. Although seeing-eye dogs were first used in Germany during WWI, and their use quickly spread, the idea of a dedicated therapy animal doesn’t seem to have sprung up until one was used in the Mayo Clinic in the 1940’s, again with war veterans.
***Watson is actually in the room, half-asleep, when this conversation occurs.
****It’s possible that the author mixed up the titles and thought “A Study in Scarlet” referred to Irene’s story (“A Scandal in Bohemia”).