Good Night, Mr. Holmes (Irene Adler #1), by Carole Nelson Douglas
In my reading of mystery series, especially those written by women with female protagonists, there is a lot of discussion that I tend to find tedious and irritating, largely because I am a man. There are ways where novelists can discuss matters of gender politics within works–Jane Austen manages the task quite well in Persuasion, largely because both she and Anne Eliot are immensely appealing and recognize that they are speaking to male audiences–but few authors do this well, especially nowadays, and this author is not one of them. When you take out the gender politics to a novel like this, you are left with a competently told mystery novel that has an interesting heroine who has an appealing and morally upright Watson-like sidekick. Great detective minds, male or female, appear to require some sort of grounded person around them to bounce ideas off of and to keep them tethered to the logistical concerns of the real world. If this novel is not the best example of a historical mystery, it certainly tells a compelling and worthwhile story from a different angle than the original one from Arthur Conan Doyle, even if it pays far too much explicit attention to matters of metafictionality.
The plot of this novel mirrors that of Doyle’s “A Scandal In Bohemia,” which this novel views as having been the work of Dr. Watson, even explicitly talking about the question of authorship, only having been told by another fictional character, this one the Shropshire spinster and parson’s daughter Penelope Huxleigh, who by chance ends up working for and with Irene Adler. Adler is part amateur detective of her own and part struggling prima donna, whose voice is too low to be a coloratura but who rejects the roles that one would get as a mezzo soprano or contralto. Adler finds herself invited to Europe and involved in a romantic relationship (though apparently not a sexual one) with an imaginary crown prince of Bohemia during a time of increasing social change and which leads her to be a target of the king’s anger when she refuses to be simply a mistress kept in gilded captivity. The complexities of the case lead her not only to investigate the fate of some lost diamonds but herself to be the target of an investigation by Sherlock Holmes in a case where there are disguises galore and a duel between the sexes that pits two intelligent people who are somewhat emotionally remote against each other.
Again, this is competent fiction. In some ways it reads like a Buzzfeed article about the who’s who of late Victorian society, most of them hopelessly morally corrupt. The book would be so much more enjoyable if the author were less sexist against men, though, as the author’s gender politics make this book far more of a chore to read and far less enjoyable than a book featuring such a worthy heroine should be. As is so often the case, less is more, less strident gender politics, less in the way of metafictional discussion about pretended authors, less in the way of anything that would distract the reader from the excitement of the plot and the worth of the characters themselves. It is a great pity that so many writers these days–especially women–have so little ability to write in order to appeal to a male audience, and so little interest in doing so. I think the world would be a great deal better off when we can get to the point where the whining and politics of ressentiment pursued by the writer and her fictional heroine have no place in either fiction or nonfiction, but such a world does not appear close at hand.