Present obsessions with Sherlock Holmes surprise me. As a freshman or sophomore in high school, I read a handful his adventures. No one else seemed to care much for the legendary sleuth, and, to be honest, I preferred Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more fantastical works.
These days people dress up as Holmes for conventions. He has movies and T.V. shows and gaudy paperback editions. I’ve even met a few individuals who try to embody him – his arrogance mostly, since intelligence is difficult to mimic.
A Study in Charlotte is one of these recent odes to Holmes. Author Brittany Cavallaro reincarnates the detective as a 16 year-old girl and side-kick Watson as a 17 year-old hipster. The revamped characters and setting were interesting, but I found myself thinking less about the story and more about Holmes’s popularity.
Our protagonists, Charlotte Holmes and James Watson, are direct descendants of the original Holmes and Watson. Clearly the two families have a long history, yet Charlotte and James first meet in a terrible boarding school in New England. By terrible I mean wealthy. Their fellow students summer in ‘Africa’ and snort cocaine on the weekends.
High school is hard. Throw it into a pressure cooker like this boarding school and it becomes dangerous – especially for a girl like Charlotte Holmes. When a man has genius and arrogance, he acquires fans. A girl with genius and arrogance gets framed for murder.
Charlotte makes mistakes. She is selfish and self-destructive. She is so many things women are never supposed to be yet often are. This realism makes her relatable. Rather than juggling a love-triangle while saving the world, Charlotte is just a girl surviving her past, her family, and her own personal demons.
What I appreciated most from this book was that Cavallaro never lectures about the double standards or misogyny Charlotte encounters. It’s not that the lectures wouldn’t be valid; they just wouldn’t be effective. Instead, Cavallaro simply puts us in someone else’s shoes. She asks a good question here and there then leaves us to reach our own conclusions.
The novel’s mystery was less satisfying. When the murderer finally stepped into the light, I didn’t feel shocked or vindicated. I felt annoyed. To be fair, I am rather new to this genre. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect it to be accessible to both newcomers and veterans. Still, this mystery didn’t seem to unravel. It seemed to lumber and grasp and collapse.
So my mind wandered often, and often it wandered to Holmes’s fame. It bothers me.
People adore Holmes despite his insolence. Because of his genius – because people wish they had his genius – they excuse and even glorify his faults. But if Holmes really existed as a snobbish classmate or inconsiderate neighbor, his fans would hate him.
Cavallaro states she created Charlotte out of pure love for Sherlock. He was bold and unfettered, while she was shy and well-behaved. Cavarallo wanted to experience, and she wanted others to experience, a woman with these same qualities.
On one hand I understand this desire. I’ve experienced the insidious effect of lack of representation. Poor representation is even worse. Swaps like Charlotte for Sherlock can widen our horizons in such important ways.
On the other hand I believe that because of our experiences, marginalized people have the opportunity to be better than those who marginalize us. We, in our politics and our fiction and our daily lives, have the ability to learn from others’ mistakes and offer stronger ideas. We can ask: Should Charlotte be a jerk just because Sherlock was? Should New Watson, in his need to live vicariously, worship Holmes the same way Old Watson did?