Continuing to gallop through the Lethe Press halloween haul, I’ve arrived at A Study In Lavender (edited by Joseph R. G. DeMarco). The premise of the collection is ‘queering Sherlock Holmes’: injecting gay themes into the canon, and generally mining the rich subtextual suggestion that the relationship between Holmes and Watson, the great detective bromance that was, can be found at the back of steaming closet of homoeroticism.
Now–disclosure–I’ve been asked to write a story for the follow-up to this volume (which I’m faintly hoping will be called The Bear of the Baskervilles or the Sign of Foreplay). Which meant I was reading the collection in hyper-critical editor mode, and nervously hoping that some caddish writer hadn’t half-inched my idea before I’d even put pen to paper. Thankfully, they haven’t, but that’s another story.
I had a nosy around a couple of other reviews online after I finished reading it, and there’s an interesting split between people taking a swing at the book for departing from canon, people suggesting it’s too canon, and those who were expecting soft-porn slash fiction. Which, apart from proving that you can’t please everyone, is slightly indicative of my feelings towards the book. They’re something of a hodge-podge of all three, depending on the story, erring towards the middle bracket.
As a collection, it’s a pretty solid take on the standard set-ups of Sherlockian genre. They’re nearly all written in the original style, from Watson’s point of view, and feature gay (or ‘invert’) characters with whom Holmes interacts. Usually tactfully, while taking textual swipes at Victorian values. As detective stories, I can’t honestly say that any of them have stood out as brilliant examples of the genre, which means it should fall to the exploration of the ‘queering’ part of the title, which is where the quality swings around.
(Of course, this does lead me to two side-points in my already rambling review. Firstly, the collection does at least avoid the odd feeling of schizophrenia that I got from Encoutners of Sherlock Holmes, another Sherlock collection I read recently, where the characterisation of Holmes and Watson swung around all over the shop. Secondly, it’s really setting myself up to look idiotic when I inevitably turn in a pedestrian detective story.)
The first story out of the gate, The Adventure of the Bloody Coins by Stephen Osborne, is unfortunately the weakest in the whole collection. The case set-up as affably done, but it ends on a horrendously awkward moment that borders on soap-incest-slash. Following on it’s heels is The Case of the Wounded Heart by Rajan Khanna, which is the story of Lestrade’s investigation into the murder of his male lover. It relies on the age-old ‘but I never told you about (x)’ reveal, but it does have its merits in the concept of the under-the-radar homosexual police officers in the force. Sadly, Lestrade remains as beige a character as he is in Doyle’s stories, though that’s arguably no fault of Khanna’s.
Happily, The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon by Katie Raynes (first publication? Really?) blasts away the cobwebs, and is a highlight of the collection. The reveal is guessable, but works all the better for it, as we watch Sherlock lead us through a tale of Sapphic poetry and runaway girls. The lesbian relationship in question is believable and affecting, and Raynes strikes the perfect balance of tenderness and realism to Holmes and Watson’s relationship that places on the onus of the ‘queering’ on the strength of their bond, and it’s unspoken undercurrents. Admirable story.
Court of Honor by J. R. Campbell is a dark tale that, editor’s hat on, would have worked so much better if its structure had been reversed. It’s first half is the preliminary motions of a Holmes story, and it’s second half is a black-hearted revenge story, with the intermediary section of actual detection missed out. For all that, it’s an interesting approach to take, and the first to experiment outside of the confines of a usual structure. It’s good, but added length could have ladeled on a bit more atmosphere. And length clearly isn’t an issue as The Well-Educated Young Man by William P. Coleman is a thick wedge in the middle of the book, more of a novella than a short story. It benefits from its length though, because it gives us the collection’s most rounded character, a young hustler who was taken in by a kindly gentleman as a young boy–but not in a gentle Fagin way. Although it occasionally feels like the characters are eager to speak with a condemnatory modern mouthpiece over Victorian values, it’s still a fascinating, well-written bit of storytelling. Not only that, but it features the cleverest and least-contrived piece of detection in the whole book.
The Bride and the Bachelors by Vincent Kovar (who I’ve also come across by way of Gay City Anthologies’ Ghost In Gaslight, Monsters In Steam) is the only one to take a turn inside Sherlock’s own head. The reasons behind the bride-groom’s vanishing isn’t hard to guess given the context of the anthology, but the case’s hinging on the use of what I assume to be polari is entertaining, and it has a happy ending that avoids being pat and smug. It’s a highlight of the book. (Mind you, I had a bit of a British moment at the beginning. A Marquess is female, not male, but I’m choosing to regard that it as a clever genderswap moment that I should have read as a clue.)
Champing at it’s heels, The Case of the Hidden Lane by Lyn C. A. Gardner seems to be roundly considered a fabulous entry, and I concur. Embroiled in a family intrigue, there are a multitude of intersecting characters that means the ‘gay mystery’ isn’t immediately guessable, and plunges the reader into something akin to what Doyle might have produced if he was writing Wodehouse. The supposition that Holmes is asexual gives us the strongest emotional blow of the book when Watson, finally understanding their bond, and its limits, says, “In the very moment I recognised our golden age, I knew that it was over.”
Whom God Destroys, by Ruth Sims, has to take credit for being the most ruthlessly out of the box of the series. It takes place in the ‘real world’, narrated by a serial killer who once worked for Arthur Conan Doyle. The Holmes link is tenuous, the psychology a little sketchy, but it’s a nasty little walk in a dingy, dangerous park that’s a breathe of bloody air amongst the other more conformist stories. From the darkest story to the silliest: The Adventure of the Unidentified Flying Object by Michael G. Cornelius is… well. What is it? It’s farcical, features a ludicrously baroque and unworkable plan on the part of a shadowy Moriarty, and features Holmes at his snidest. Disposable, fun, but flimsy. The final story is The Adventure of the Poesy Ring by Elka Cloke. The detective element is neither here nor there: this story has been saved for last as it features the long-awaited physical clinch between Holmes and Watson, which feels a bit like what accidentally coming across internet erotica must feel like. Not great.
So, to curb my British grumpiness, I would offer a conclusion on the collection: it’s good, but not great. I feel a little sad at giving what comes closest thus far to a negative review to a Lethe Press title, as they’re all lovingly assembled and intriguing articles. A Study In Lavender has its highlights, but it also has its flat moments and my overall feeling of the book was of a set of solid Holmesian adventures with a sprinkle of gay glitter thrown in. As an execution of ‘queering Sherlock Holmes’ it turns up and does its job, but I can’t help thinking about all the other shrouded doors of mystery in Victorian London waiting for Holmes to open them and shine a little gaslight in.
Still recommended, on balance, though — I don’t review books on here if I don’t like that, as it just feels mean-spirited. There’s a lot of people for whom this book will be right in their wheelhouse.
Now, in accordance with my own grumbles set forth, I better produce a masterpiece.