Does the world need another rendition or rethink of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Victorian detective? That’s a worthy debate. However, I think the world will enjoy the newly released YA novel A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, the start of a new series that I hopes goes for several more books.
A Study in Charlotte is another in a long line of rethinks on the Sherlock mythos. The twist this time is that it is set in a private boarding school in today’s New England and the main character is a seventeen-year-old woman named Charlotte. The conceit of this novel is that Holmes and Watson were real people, back in the late 19th century, and their children have gone on to found large but separate close-knit families. Holmeses and Watsons have been bumping into each other over the years, even having run-ins with a Moriarty or two.
Young Jamie Watson (who fruitlessly wishes everybody would call him James) has an American father and a British mother who have gone through a divorce. Having left London to go to a private school in his father’s home town of Sherringford, Connecticut (on a rugby scholarship), he finds himself isolated and alone thanks to the school’s many rich-kid cliques. He gravitates towards the brilliant young Charlotte Holmes — herself on her own after mysterious scandal sent her away from London — who rather firmly holds herself aloof from the rest of the student body.
After some initial tension between Holmes and Watson, they are thrown together into their traditional roles when a murder shakes Sherringford. A nasty young man named Lee Dobson has been found dead in his dorm, poisoned with arsenic, and bitten by a rattlesnake. His murder scene has been set up to look like the set of the classic Holmes’ mystery The Speckled Band, and Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson have clearly been set up to be prime suspects.
Perhaps the best thing about the novel is the voice of the narrator, Jamie Watson. Author Brittany Cavallaro composes his first person narrative wonderfully, making him equal parts romantic, self-deprecating and cynical. He shares the original Watson’s sense of awe over Holmes’ abilities (augmented by the fact that he is also drawn to her romantically), while at the same time being candid in his frustration over her many flaws.
Although the book has generally received glowing reviews, some have objected to the characterization of Charlotte Holmes. Some feel that she is too similar to the original Holmes for A Study in Charlotte to offer something different to the genre . Others share the opinion that Charlotte is too close to Sherlock, but object to the idea of a drug-addicted and sociopathic personality inhabiting the body of a seventeen-year-old woman. Personally, I think that’s the point.
Sherlock is, in many ways, a monster, who thinks too fast and too far ahead from the rest of the world to fit inside it. Cumberbatch, I think, portrays Sherlock as knowing that he is a monster, and wishing at times that he wasn’t. As Lestrange said in Sherlock’s A Study in Pink, “Sherlock Holmes is a great man. And someday, if we’re very lucky, he might even become a good one.”
For Charlotte, this conflict between an individual who thinks too fast and too far ahead from the world around them is amped up by the gender-swap and the age change. A number of times, Charlotte shows signs of wanting to be normal. There are hints that her parents have trained these sociopathic tendencies into her, and she doesn’t have an easy way to escape the prison of her family name (the parallels between her and a particular Moriarty in this story are striking, but I won’t spoil it for you). Her drug addiction to Oxy is tied in with this. Charlotte Holmes is as brilliant and as capable as Sherlock on his best day, but having the hero as a young woman adds elements to the character that just resonate with me.
Although the book is an easy read — full of action, witty dialogue, and wonderful tension in several directions between Watson and Holmes — it is also a dark one. There are multiple murders and attempted murders. Charlotte does drugs, and smokes (in an attempt to not do drugs). People who need trigger warnings should be advised that rape plays a part in this story — and is a reason why Holmes is seen as the prime suspect in Lee Dobson’s murder.
If I had any complaints, it’s that Charlotte and Jamie become best friends too easily. The tension between the two is fleeting, before the two come to depend on each other. On the other hand, their chemistry and the overall rightness of Holmes and Watson working together mitigates whatever concerns I have about their insta-friendship. A Study in Charlotte was a page turner that kept me guessing to the end, and left me wanting more stories featuring the young Holmes and Watson. I look forward to the next instalment.