A Study in Awful

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Reading Challenge: A book from the library

It’s December, and I’m so very, very ready for this reading challenge to be over. It has gotten me to read some books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, but it has also led to me lying around on my couch frantically reading books that irritate the crap out of me the last couple of weekends. I have a stressful job, okay? I don’t need to be getting pissed off by fiction on weekends when reality is already bleak enough.

I saved “A book from the library” until the very end because it was such an easy item to fill. Now I really wished I’d filled it with something better, but how could I have known? This was one of those books I’d probably have read anyway. Young adult fiction updating of Holmes and Watson, and a female Holmes, to boot. The whole “they’re part of dynasties of Conan Doyle characters” thing was a little weird, but the concept was not something I, an avid fan of the original stories, was going to pass up. I was definitely going to try to read it. The thing is, if I didn’t have the end of the year coming up and 3 books left to go after it, I would have closed the book around page 48 and moved on.

I really do enjoy the original Holmes stories, and there is something delightfully archetypal about these characters. They’re begging to be relocated, reinterpreted, set in the future or modern times or anywhere you like, as anyone you like. The brilliant but not always forthcoming Holmes and the loyal and steadfast Dr. Watson (sadly reinterpreted by earlier film adaptations as an idiot but more recently restored to his original level), you can bring them into just about any setting and give them all kinds of additional characteristics. You can bring Mycroft, if you want, maybe Dr. Watson’s eventual wife Mary, Moriarty always, Sebastian Moran if you’ve actually read the stories, and sometimes Irene Adler (although you probably won’t know what to do with her). There’s a lot you can do with these characters.

Unfortunately, the most prominent of our most recent Holmes adaptations have decided that Holmes has to be an asshole and possibly a “sociopath” (don’t even get me started on that term). This book followed that pattern, and in spite of Brittany Cavallaro’s insistence that she is an old-school Holmesian, it seems to be more strongly influenced by the famous BBC series than the original stories. For the record, although the pilot was extremely strong, I don’t really care for the BBC series. I actually prefer this Holmes, which I know puts me in a minority:


One particular thing that Elementary has over its British counterpart is that it doesn’t treat its women and people of color like jokes or stereotypes, and doesn’t go bonkers with the “oh my god we’re not gay shut up shut up we’re not gay” homophobia. Because it’s the goddamn 21st century. And its Holmes doesn’t treat the good aspects of humanity like idiocy, just as things that aren’t necessarily useful to him at the time (although they frequently turn out to be), which to my reading is actually closer to the original Holmes than the Icy Sociopath.

A Study in Charlotte gives us another Holmes the Icy Sociopath, this time in the figure of an attractive teenage girl. Said teenage girl is part of the Holmes dynasty, who meets up with our narrator, a member of the Watson dynasty. There is also a Moriarty family. They’re all destined to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps, which apparently just means the Watsons are destined to follow around the Holmeses, because none of that family seems to have decided to be doctors or join the military. Jamie, our narrator, says he wants to be a writer, but I never really believe him.

As I said earlier, Holmes and Watson are easily and readily updateable and can be put into any form you want. But when they become teenagers, certain things become disturbing. Holmes’s drug problem, for example: she’s 16 and popping oxy, and has already gotten over cocaine use and experimented with heroin, and by the way all this started when she was 12 and Watson quickly exonerates her dealers by noting how imperious and demanding and self-destructive Holmes is. So? I don’t care how imperious and demanding and self-destructive a 14 year-old girl is, it’s a grown fucking man’s job to say no, and that goes to drug dealing as well as the concept of “jailbait.” Also, my God, if we were going to have a female Holmes, did we have to have her be sexually assaulted? This isn’t even a spoiler, this is revealed on page 48, but spoiler alert, it’s used as a narrative convenience to explain why she won’t be getting physical with Watson. I hate that. I really do. There’s a great quote out there that notes that when heroes and heroines have a tragic backstory, the hero usually has an injured, brutalized or murdered woman in the background and the heroine has…been injured or brutalized. And I wish I could find it.

Oh, yeah, there’s plot, too, but every single character is horrible and manipulative (what’s wrong with Watson, Sr., exactly? Any theories? Did he have a chronic case of PlotContrivanceItis?) and substance abuse and sexual assault were used as plot devices without any hint of the complexity that goes with both of these massive public health crises, so I don’t care.

You can do whatever you want with Holmes and Watson, but I really wish Brittany Cavallaro had done something a little different with them.

Oh, but I liked that the school was called Sherringford. That’s a nice little Easter egg for Holmes fans.

Sidebar: I have three books left to go in the reading challenge. A political memoir (The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, currently reading), A book recommended by someone you just met (The Inner Voice by Renee Fleming), and A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy (I have known all along that I was going to read Hogfather by Terry Pratchett for this one and I can’t wait). Then this experiment is over!

Recommended pairing: Vodka. I don’t care. Something to dull the pain.


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