Sherlock Holmes is the world’s best known, and possibly most popular, detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” in 1887. Over the next forty years, Doyle went on to write fifty-five additional short stories and four novels about Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. John Watson.
Holmes and Watson have become icons for both Great Britain and the mystery genre, and their adventures did not end when Doyle stopped writing. The characters have provided a type of playground for other writers shortly after the publication of the first Holmes stories. Over the years, hundreds of tales concerning Holmes and Watson have been written by almost as many authors. Nor did their exploits remain limited to words on a page. As new technologies developed, and the ways to tell stories have increased, Doyle’s characters have provided source material, ranging from existing stories being stories retold and reinterpreted to new stories of which Doyle would never have thought. They have been presented on the stage and in motion pictures, radio plays, television series, video games, and almost every other medium imaginable.
With such a catalog of existing material across such a breadth of formats, it would be easy to believe that after 131 years nothing new or unexpected could be done with these classic characters. But Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor proves that imaginative writers are still able to pleasantly surprise fans of Holmes and Watson.
A Study in Honor begins with Dr. Janet Watson arriving in Washington, DC to attempt to pick up the pieces of her life and career. She was a surgeon, but that life ended when a bullet shattered her arm while she was tending to the wounded in Oklahoma. She’s been honorably discharged from military service, but the VA is so overrun with soldiers returning from the Civil War that is threatening to destroy the US that they simply can’t be bothered with the fact that the mechanical arm, with which she was fitted on the battlefield, neither fits nor functions. Jobless, homeless, suffering from PTSD and with few to no prospects to help her gain her footing and create a new life, Janet cautiously welcomes an introduction to Sara Holmes, a mysterious, myopic, and often down right maddening person of uncertain, but considerable, means who offers to share her Georgetown townhome.
With a place to live, Janet is able to start a new job working at the VA hospital as a medical technician. But Janet is still a doctor, even if not in the eyes of the VA, and she begins to notice an alarming trend: soldiers returning from service in the war are dying. And those deaths cannot be explained and appear, if one attempts to look for answers, to be actively covered up. After yet another patient dies inexplicably, Watson decides she needs to find out why this is happening. And it just so happens that Sara Holmes, Watson’s obnoxious new roommate, may be exactly the person to uncover the answers that she needs.
Beth Bernobich, writing under the pseudonym of Claire O’Dell, has taken the familiar tropes of Doyle’s Holmes and Watson and turned them into something completely new: the main protagonists are now queer women of color, their base of operations is Georgetown and the setting is a frighteningly familiar U.S. struggling to survive another civil war being fought between the extremists of the Left and the Right. The result is a compelling story with rich, well drawn characters in a world that is all too believable.
O’Dell’s characterizations of Holmes and Watson are fascinating. While both stay true to the basic elements necessary for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, they are also complex characters in their own right. With Watson, O’Dell emphasizes the effects of being a wounded war veteran to a much stronger degree than is typical in most Holmes' stories, but the resulting character is a strong, competent woman struggling to find her place in a world that has used her until it no longer needs her, and then discards her, hoping she will simply disappear. (A story that is all to sobering a truth for many contemporary veterans.) Holmes, on the other hand, is a brilliant, egocentric, at times verging on the incomprehensible, and yet always in control of any situation. And while she describes herself as a “challenge,” she is actually insufferable and infuriating (as almost every iteration of the character ultimately is!).
The mystery presented is satisfying, but it is important to note that it is not the focus of this novel. This novel is about the women who take on the challenge of solving the mystery and, in that pursuit, discover themselves, each other, and the familiar pairing that the world has grown to love.
A Study in Honor is the first book in the The Janet Watson Chronicles, with the next book, The Hound of Justice, due out in 2019.