(I am a Harper Voyager Super Reader: HarperVoyager gives me free advance copies of upcoming science-fiction and fantasy titles, and in return I write honest reviews. This one is spoiler-free; I reveal nothing you couldn’t also find on the back cover.)
Claire O’Dell has just launched a brand-new, alternate-history reimagining of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. The first of, presumably, the series published by Harper Voyager is called A Study in Honor.
O’Dell’s inventive twists on the familiar crime-solving duo promise wonderful things. Both characters are now African American women, one of them lesbian. Dr. Watson is a surgeon racked by PTSD and struggling to find satisfying work after losing an arm in the army. They solve mysteries in Washington, D.C., and frequently run up against forces both shadowy and bureaucratic. Meanwhile, in this near-future setting, an actual, bullets-firing New Civil War simmers in the USA’s central states. (In fact, it’s in an ambush by Illinois secessionists that Dr. Watson loses her arm.) It thus comes as a surprising disappointment that the book falls flat overall. By all rights, it should be an absolute gem, but somehow it just…isn’t, quite.
Much of the problem is Holmes. Sara Holmes, and that’s disappointing in itself: “Sherlock” is such an idiosyncratic and therefore memorable name that O’Dell’s version seriously needs to step up its game. I don’t know—“Serengeti”? “Serendipity”? Just plain “Sara” sits dully on the page. (“Janet” Watson for John Watson feels fine—traditional, plain first names straight across.) The essence of Holmes—in any version you care to name—has always been his uniquely agile brain. But here, Holmes’s superpowers lie in two other locations than her skull. The first is a literal network apparently literally wired into her brain, providing her the ability to communicate and perform research with lightning speed, internally. Holmes is fascinating in part because he’s just like you, only sharper; he reaches his conclusions step by step, using logic and probability that sure, now, afterwards, we can follow too. Here Holmes is a cyborg, mechanically enhanced, and that fact takes the fun right out of her. You have to admire a quick-thinking human, but it’s harder to admire a machine, even a part-machine.
Holmes’s second source of superpowers is a vast, intricate network of government agencies, government funds, secret agents, assistants, and informants—because guess what? Sara Holmes works covertly for the government (apparently the FBI). This, too, comes as a surprising disappointment. Holmes-as-government-employee just doesn’t seem like Holmes; much of the point or essence of Holmes is Holmes’s fierce, borderline-pathological independence. In an interesting bit of accidental timing, I’m writing this review a couple weeks after a high-ranking anonymous White House insider published an op-ed piece in the New York Times about his “resistance from within.” Many people have criticized that writer, suggesting that it’s impossible to be an insider and meanwhile perform actual effective resistance. I can’t help thinking the same thing about Sara Holmes here.
Just as Sara Holmes shouldn’t be a government agent, neither should the villain be the government. A Study in Honor bears the tagline on the cover, “She hit rock bottom…but the mystery goes all the way up to the top.” (“She” here is Dr. Watson.) This pretty much points the finger at The System as the antagonist before you even crack the cover. Sure enough, many, many pages are devoted here to Watson’s (and secondarily, Holmes’s) frustrations with government bureaucracy—with her struggles to find and afford a new high-tech arm to replace the “temporary” model she’s currently stuck with; to keep her Honorable Discharge status; to negotiate Veterans Administration paperwork and regulations; and to help fellow veterans through her work as a medical technician despite The System’s best efforts to thwart her. The Trial, or perhaps it’s M*A*S*H, seeped into this book, and it’s simply out of place here.
That’s a shame, because otherwise the character of Dr. Watson provides a breath of fresh air. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson remains frankly a bit of a doofus. He tut-tuts, and goggles at Holmes’s intellectual pyrotechnics, and falls prey to every stratagem dreamed up by villains. The BBC’s series with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson gives Watson both more screen time and improved brain power. A Study in Honor is narrated by Watson, just as in Doyle, but O’Dell’s Watson is much more central a character in her own right. You worry about her, and care what happens to her, and feel her considerable pain. In Doyle, Watson’s army service and medical background are footnotes; here, they’re the most compelling subjects. Watson’s sexuality remains an underdeveloped or unnecessary footnote, however. She records feeling momentary attraction for Holmes on a few occasions—and wouldn’t that be an intriguing twist for the duo!—but it feels gratuitous, adding little or nothing to the story. Sadly, Watson and Holmes’s ethnicity never really emerges as an issue. That change alone—making them African American and female—promises all kinds of intriguing possibilities or statements on gender and race, yet yields only a couple of askance looks in Watson’s direction in her upscale neighborhood.
Speaking of the underutilized: the New Civil War ought to be the focus of a whole series itself! Any American not living in a wi-fi-less cave for the last few years can see how polarized and combative our culture has become. The actual fighting described in this book—and its secondary effects on employment, the economy, and day-to-day safety concerns—feels both plausible and right, like an accidental glimpse into the future.
Television shows famously take a few episodes to hit their stride fully, to become what they were meant to be, to work. Here’s hoping that this potential-filled new take on Holmes and Watson will do so as well, and soon!