Narrated by Kate Reading
Sherry Thomas kicks off her new Lady Sherlock series of historical mysteries in fine style with A Study in Scarlet Women. In it, she introduces listeners to the main players in a way that is engaging and extremely effective while also setting up and resolving an intriguing, self-contained mystery that paves the way for what look set to be interesting developments in future stories.
Charlotte Holmes, the youngest of the four daughters of Lord and Lady Holmes is… different. She never spoke much as a child, preferring to speak only when she had something of importance to say, and she never quite understood the need to behave as other people did. As she grew to adulthood, she began to employ learned behaviours when her own instincts didn’t tell her the right thing to say or do, recognising the need for at least the appearance of fitting in if she was going to be able to achieve her ambitions.
In her first Season, Charlotte made her father aware of her desire never to marry, saying she felt unsuited to the married state and would instead like to become the headmistress of a girls’ school. Her father asked her to wait five years, and said that if she still felt the same at the end of that period, he would consider funding her education and training for the position she desired. When, at the end of that time, her father reneged on his promise, Charlotte took drastic action. Her plan was to render herself unmarriageable by quietly taking a man to bed and then to force her father to keep his promise – but unfortunately, she chose poorly, and the man in question blabbed about their projected assignation which led to their being interrupted at a sensitive moment by his mother, his wife and several other noted gossips. Charlotte is utterly ruined, and has to say goodbye to her dreams of running a school.
Lady Holmes wants to send Charlotte away from town to a remote property, there to remain for the rest of her days, but Charlotte has other ideas. She steals away from home and takes up residence in a boarding house with the intention of finding work as a typist. But that is easier said than done. Charlotte needs experience and references – things she doesn’t have – and before long is down to the last of her funds. She has few options and is at a very low ebb when she encounters a flamboyantly dressed, attractive older lady with whom she feels an instant connection and who turns out – of course – to be Mrs. John Watson, the widow of an Army officer killed in the recent war in Afghanistan.
While all this is happening to Charlotte, Ms. Thomas is busy setting in train her mystery plotlines and acquainting the reader with some of the other important characters, most notably Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard and Lord Ingram Ashburton, renowned archaeologist and one of the younger sons of the Duke of Wycliffe, whose relationship with Charlotte is obviously of long-standing and very complicated – and who is the only person able to understand the workings of her incredible mind and keep up with her. Inspector Treadles has called upon Sherlock Holmes for help on a few previous occasions, although he has never met the great man as their interactions have taken place through an intermediary – Lord Ingram.
Shortly after Charlotte’s disgrace, the mother of her lover is found dead, and because Charlotte’s sister, Olivia, had a very public row with the lady on the day before her death, Olivia is now a murder suspect. The recent deaths of a Mr. Harrison Sackville of Devon, and of Lady Amelia Drummond (who had, at one time, been engaged to marry Lord Holmes, but had called off the wedding at the last minute), are also suspicious and Charlotte writes to the coroner – in the guise of her alter-ego, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, of course – to suggest that there is a link between all three deaths.
Treadles hopes that Holmes will be of assistance in the Sackville case – so is very disappointed to learn that the great man has taken to his bed due to some mysterious illness and may only be consulted through his sister. Lord Ingram is not particularly sanguine about the likelihood of Holmes’ recovery, but nonetheless agrees to accompany Treadles to a meeting with Miss Holmes to see what assistance her brother can offer.
I can really only scratch the surface in this review, as I don’t want to give too much away; suffice to say that A Study in Scarlet Women is a well-paced and enjoyably complex story populated with engaging and intriguing characters. The mystery is well-done but even more impressive to my mind is the way that the author introduces and rounds-out all the main characters in the first part of the story without resorting to info-dumps or improbable coincidences. The whole thing evolves organically, from the descriptions of Charlotte’s obviously dysfunctional family and the effect of her parent’s unhappy marriage on her and her sisters, to the development and eventual solution of the mystery. I have one small criticism, about the fact that the story sees two of Charlotte’s relatives become murder suspects – which seems a teeny bit contrived – but that’s a very small thing and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story in any way.
There’s an unconventional dash of romance, too, although it’s not the focus of the story and it’s not something that is going to resolve easily given the way Ms. Thomas has set it up. It’s obvious from the very beginning of the story that there is something between Charlotte and Lord Ingram, and that it’s been there for a long time; but somehow they failed to realise what they had found in each other until it was too late and he married someone else. He’s still married – albeit very unhappily – but is far too decent a man to do what many other men in his situation would have done, and take a mistress. I realise that for some this situation might be unpalatable (the married man in love with another woman) but it’s impossible to ignore because even though Lord Ingram and Charlotte don’t meet face-to-face until about half-way through the book, when they do, the chemistry between them is so strong it’s a wonder my ears didn’t spontaneously combust.
I may have almost jumped for joy when I saw that Kate Reading had been engaged to narrate the audiobook version of what is one of my favourite books of 2016. So often one gets excited about a book one loves coming to audio only to discover that the narrator is unknown, or one of those one doesn’t enjoy listening to; so I’m saying a big, public Thank You to Blackstone Audio for having the great good sense to employ a narrator who was going to be able to do justice to this terrific book. Anyone who has listened to Ms. Reading in the past will know that she’s an excellent narrator and that her technical skills – pacing, character differentiation, expression – are outstanding. Her performance here is every bit as good as I’d expected it would be. In addition to the four major characters – Charlotte, Ingram, Treadles and Mrs. Watson – there is a fairly large cast of supporting characters, some of whom play larger role than others, but Ms. Reading voices them all appropriately without breaking a sweat. In the scenes between Lord Ingram and Treadles, there is never any confusion about which of the men is speaking, and the same goes for the conversations between Charlotte and Mrs. Watson, or Charlotte and her sister, Olivia. She plays those explosive scenes between Charlotte and Lord Ingram I mentioned earlier extremely well, expertly replicating the tension-stretched-to-breaking-point between them which just leapt off the page when I read the book.
A Study in Scarlet Women is an audiobook I can recommend without hesitation to fans of the author, the narrator and historical mysteries in general. I can’t wait for more.
Book Content: A
Steam Factor: You can play it out loud (although there are references to sexual situations and abuse)
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
A Study in Scarlet Women was provided to AudioGals by Blackstone Audio for a review.