A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas is a historical fiction novel that is the first book in the Lady Sherlock series. It takes place during the Victorian era and is essentially a cosy mystery narrative. I picked it up because I tend to love Sherlockian stories and the premise sounded very interesting to me. However, in the end my expectations for it were terribly let down and I was disappointed with the execution.
A Study in Scarlet Women follows a young woman named Charlotte Holmes, who has only ever wanted an education and the chance to put her intelligence to use. However, frustrated with societal norms and roles of demure women, she makes a drastic decision in order to take control of her life. In the aftermath of her choices, London befalls a string of murders that Charlotte feels determined to solve. Taking up the mantle of Sherlock Holmes, she corresponds with Scotland Yard in order to help them solve the mystery behind the crimes committed, while trying to piece the broken shards of her life back together.
I wanted to like this book, and truth be told, initially I felt very optimistic about it. But as I read along and delved further into Charlotte’s life and the mysteries of the deaths, that excitement began to cool down like embers in a long-doused fireplace. My biggest issue with the book is how painfully passive it is. The second would be the disjointedness between Holmes and the case she’s assisting with.
When the book kicks off, it felt slow, but I presumed this was only natural as the pieces needed to be laid out for things to really get started. That’s what I told myself, and after fifty or sixty pages, the pace picked up and things began to get more interesting. It mostly focused on scandals, which given the time period, is a given. My mind was starting to get wrapped up in Charlotte’s plight and how the mantle of Sherlock would inevitably be fired up. Yet, when I reached the halfway point of the novel, at approximately 170 pages or so, I felt that all of the development thus far should have occurred at least seventy pages ago. It drudged on, spending pages and pages on the most prosaic of elements. Even the dialogue that was used to cover the empty space between plot points came off flat and dull. I was bored out of my mind.
Charlotte has a gentleman who she banters with back and forth, and both seemingly have strong feelings for one another but due to specific circumstances are kept separated. Their banter, while clever and somewhat charming, missed a very important trait when it comes to building romance: chemistry. There was absolutely no heat or tension between them at all. Charlotte loves sweet treats. She had more chemistry and passion for her slice of plum cake than she did with her love interest, and this isn’t even an exaggeration.
Sherlock corresponds with Scotland Yard via creative avenues in order to pass along his insight into otherwise easy to miss clues. But aside from these small titbits of interaction, there is a distinct separation between Sherlock and the actual detective-work that goes into solving the case. His points-of-view and advice were so convenient they felt contrived. The wall between the two entities doesn’t begin to disappear until the last one-fourth of the narrative, after Charlotte has dealt with personal issues. Even then, it happens so brusquely that I began to wonder if it was even the same bloody book.
Speaking of the finale, the overall reasoning behind the crimes—the motive, if you will—also felt like it was pulled out of the wall for shock value and to create an extra layer of intrigue to Sherlock’s “brilliance,” yet all it succeeded in accomplishing (from me) was a what-the-fuck thought process.
These inconsistencies and lack of fluid headway coupled with the godawful pacing makes A Study in Scarlet Women a gallingly banal reading experience in its entirety. There’s also fat-phobic commentary, some of which is expressed via “chin measurements,” that won’t sit well with some readers. I know I didn’t care for it one bit. Overall, I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone, even if you are a fan of Sherlockian mysteries, as there are much better written ones out there.