The premise of this book is quite simple - suppose Sherlock Holmes, widely regarded as the most successful literary detective of all times, was actually a woman. Author Sherry Thomas takes this seemingly simple juxtaposition and comes up with a delightful page-turner that also touches on some very important social issues of the time. Sherry Thomas has previously authored books in a variety of genres that mainly span romance-novels, mixed with fantasy. She has brought her skills to the mystery genre with this series (more on this later). The result is a book that is although not the same level of maturity in exploring the mystery genre, and Sherlock Holmes in particular, is an intriguing introduction to a cast of characters that one hopes will grow in scope and depth in subsequent installments.
The lead character of this story is one Charlotte Holmes, of a brilliant mind and a fondness for discernment, and even larger appetite to gastronomic delights. Forced to adapt her behavior in order to be socially acceptable, she seeks an independent life from her parents - a father who considers her feats of intellect as amusement, and an abusive mother who does not relate to her in any way. The first part of the book centers on a scandal involving Charlotte, and how it affects the way society looks at the family. Charlotte escapes from her parent's home to move to London, in the hopes of finding a job as a typist or a secretary, but becomes involved in an affair of suspicious deaths linked to her sister and father. She realizes that it is up to her to exonerate her family's name. The rest of the story is the case, coupled with a sort-of origin story where she transforms into a consulting detective, providing assistance those in need, all for a modest fee of course.
Charlotte is aided in her business by one Mrs. John Watson, a widow who takes her in as a ladies' companion and then encourages her to be a detective, and Lord Ingram Ashburton, her (only) childhood friend, who also happens to love her dearly. The official hand of the law in this version of Holmes is one Inspector Treadles, a typical middle-class workman who is married to a woman of noble heritage. In addition, we have Charlotte's sister Livia, Ingram's brother Bancroft (Mycroft Holmes in this world) rounding up the cast of familiars. Mrs. Hudson also makes a cameo appearance that ties in nicely with the overall plot. As mentioned before, Miss Thomas' extensive background in the romance-based genres is ably demonstrated in her characterization of Ingram and Charlotte's relationship, coupled with the very detailed, feminine Victorian world that she sets up as a background to the series. The novel is an eccentric mix of a sophisticated mystery set up from a very Brontean perspective, and I would argue that this is in fact its defining allure.
Thomas' world may be Victorian England, but the issues that she highlights could well be from a New York burrough! Charlotte Holmes displays a rare ability for that time, of being aware that she is a woman, and wanting to be much more. At one point in the story, she remarks to her sister that while she will certainly try to understand why women are treated in a different fashion to men, she will never accept the limits that society places before her. One of the most eye-opening aspects of this text to me as a male reader, was the exposure to the severely misogynistic world of Victorian England. A gender-flip to a more contemporary Holmes (as CBS' Elementary does with Watson) does not come with as much realignment of societal assumptions as placing this same flip in a Victorian society - a society that was firmly entrenched in an active bias against women, a bias that spanned social and economic classes. Even the most simplest of public tasks in this environment, if undertaken by a woman, now take on the flavor of subterfuge and possibly, illegal behavior. Thomas' Holmes is unabashedly feminist; she espouses feminism, although she does not know the word. Kudos to the author for driving this point home without resorting to heavy-handedness. The use of the word "Scarlet" in the title is also not just a rehash of Doyle's original, but carries the weight of social perception associated with a woman thus referred to.
Speaking of which, one of the problems with this book is the proliferation of not-so-subtle and apologetic nods in the direction of Conan Doyle's version. Agreed that the name Sherlock Holmes is the main attracting force to this series, but I would rather see the author chart her own course, develop her own Universe, much like her titular heroine.
In conclusion, the book is a terrific page-turner that sets up a good origin story for a very intriguing lead character. The text flows easily, and this book should be a good companion for a pouring weekend! I am eagerly awaiting the next books in this series.