I’ll confess straight off that I’m not what I’d call a Sherlock Holmes “aficionado”. I’ve read some of the books and stories, and have enjoyed his various celluloid iterations, from Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sherry Thomas’ re-imagining of Sherlock as Charlotte in A Study in Scarlet Women was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of last year. But I can’t quote chunks of text or even remember all the plots of the stories I’ve read, so I’m most definitely not a card-carrying member of the Sherlock Fan Club.
But I was definitely up for the idea of a story featuring The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, although now I’ve finished it, I can’t say if it’s the sort of book that will appeal to diehard Sherlockians or to the relatively uninitiated. Speaking as a member of the latter group, I’m not sure whether the style adopted by author Leonard Goldberg is akin to Conan Doyle’s or if it was his intention for the entire book to seem like averagely-written Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Reviews of the book on Goodreads certainly indicate that those more familiar with Conan Doyle’s work appreciated the writing in this, but I found it plodding and unimaginative.
When Charles Harrelston falls to his death from a third floor window, the now elderly Doctor John H. Watson – who still resides in rooms at 221b Baker Street – is approached by the dead man’s family to ascertain whether his death was suicide or murder. Watson is informed that Harrelston’s fall was witnessed by a young widow and her son, and, together with his son (also named John), a doctor who works as a pathologist at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, goes to interview the woman, Mrs. Joanna Blalock. Watson senior knows exactly who the woman is, and later explains to his son that she is the product of a drug and alcohol fuelled encounter between Sherlock Holmes and “the woman”, Irene Adler, the only woman ever to outwit him, and someone whose mind he recognised as being (almost) the equal of his own. After her birth, Joanna was adopted by a childless couple Watson knew, and he has kept an eye on her over the years. From her pertinent comments about the dead man and his fall, it’s immediately apparent that she has inherited her considerable intellect and powers of observation from both her parents.
Harrelston had been playing cards with Doctor Christopher Moran immediately before he fell to his death, and had suffered heavy losses. The police believe he killed himself because he had lost so much money, but it quickly becomes apparent that that is not the case, and when a second victim – who had served in the army with both Moran and Harrelston and who had also spent time with Moran shortly before his death – is found, Joanna and the two doctors realise that the deaths are linked. To prove Moran guilty of murder, they need to delve back into his past and, specifically, to association formed between him, the victims and a fourth man during the Second Afghan War (1878-80).
The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes is much more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, as the murderer is immediately identified; so the story is about how Joanna and the Doctors Watson gather the evidence to prove the suspect’s guilt and uncover his motives. There are nods to other Holmes stories – most notably The Sign of Four – and it was a nicely tongue-in-cheek touch to have many of the players be the offspring of some of the original characters. In addition to Joanna, Watson’s housekeeper is Mrs. Hudson’s daughter, Inspector Lestrade’s son is the investigating officer – and even the villain is the son of one of Holmes’ original enemies. I don’t have a problem with that or with the nature of the story – my problems with the book are all to do with the execution, which, as I’ve said above, leaves much to be desired. The writing is simplistic, the pace is pedestrian – there’s lots of talk and not much action – the characterisation is superficial at best, and I really couldn’t like Joanna, who is just perfect and knows everything. Every time she makes a deduction, the reaction of those around her is one of awe and incredulity. For example; Joanna finds a rubber strip hidden beneath the cushion on a chair occupied by the second victim. I knew what it was – yet TWO experienced medical men don’t work it out until Joanna tells them. And later, during an interview with Moran’s secretary, Joanna makes the observation that he is fluent in French. The secretary is astonished that she could know this, but the room they’re in is littered with French novels – and when she explains this to him, he is utterly astonished at her perspicacity. Going back to what I said earlier about my not being a Holmes devotee – perhaps the great man himself was treated in much the same way (I suspect so), and had I been more familiar with the original tales, perhaps this attitude wouldn’t have struck me as being quite so ridiculous that my eyes hurt with all the rolling. This sort of thing happens repeatedly; Joanna pronounces and the two Watsons – supposedly intelligent men, the both of them – simply stand there in open mouthed shock. Even Doctor Watson Snr., who is living through it a second time.
[As a side note; by complete coincidence, I was reading a review copy of the second instalment of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series on the same days I was listening to this, and the contrast was stark. The sophistication of Ms. Thomas’ writing and her ability to fashion a complex, multi-layered plot and wonderfully rounded characters really highlighted the deficiencies in the writing, plotting and characterisation in this novel.]
Steve West is a very experienced narrator and I’ve enjoyed listening to him in the past, but even his superb narrating skills couldn’t turn The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes into an entertaining listen. Given the main protagonist is a woman, it might seem odd to have chosen a male narrator, but Joanna operates in a male-dominated world, and other than Miss Hudson and a couple of bit parts, the cast is predominantly male. Fortunately, Mr. West is extremely good at portraying female characters; his female voices always impress me and his interpretation of Joanna, whether she’s wowing everyone with her incredible powers of deduction or being smilingly flirtatious with John, is very good indeed. All the other characters are clearly delineated; the story is narrated by John Watson Jnr., and the two Watsons are contrasted by means of adding a gruffer note to the elder doctor’s voice so the listener is always able to differentiate between them. Moran’s deeply resonant tones are bluff and aptly convey the man’s ruthless over-confidence; LeStrade’s slightly nasal delivery makes him sound a alternately unpleasant and obsequious, and overall, Mr. West delivers a well-paced, polished performance. But the story didn’t engage my attention and I found it a very easy audiobook to set aside; had I not been listening for review, I would almost certainly have DNFed it and moved on to something else.
Book Content: C-
Steam Factor: You can play it out loud
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes was provided to AudioGals by Macmillan Audio for a review.