Book Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

A Conspiracy in Belgravia Book Cover
A Conspiracy in Belgravia The Lady Sherlock Series Mystery Penguin Kindle Edition 366

(From Goodreads) Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

This is the second Lady Sherlock book. I received the first book, A Study of Scarlet Women, as an ARC, started to read it, didn’t get past the first few pages, and then promptly forgot it for years. Then a few weeks ago, I randomly opened the book, became completely engrossed, and read it all in 24 hours.

Mysteries don’t usually appeal to me, but I enjoy historical romance quite a bit. These books seem to fall into that sweet spot, and I found myself enjoying and trying to entangle the gender-bending take on the classic Sherlock stories (which, admittedly, I read so long ago that the details are very fuzzy if there at all). Sherlock Holmes becomes Charlotte Holmes. Dr. Watson is Mrs. Watson. If I had a better sense of the characters of the original, I’d probably be able to make more connections, alas, it’s not even remotely necessary for the enjoyment in this series.

Thomas does such a great job at weaving together subplots, character growth and setbacks, and tossing in a bit of biting feminist commentary, that I found myself completely hooked.

The second book (and the real subject of this review), is just as compelling, though it did take me longer to get through. Plot-wise, I can’t really say whether this is a mystery of the first class. On one hand, mysteries require such a suspension of disbelief for me, that they all seem ridiculous when laid out on paper. There’s a murder, another, a long lost lover, a conspiracy and coverup — and in the center of it all, Charlotte Holmes, just trying to be herself in a world that desperately (and even forcefully) wants her to be anything else.

Charlotte is a woman in possession of a great mind and the keen ability to read people, just like the Holmes of Doyle’s world. However she avoids all the assholery to which the classic Sherlock Holmes is attributed (and even lauded for), because she’s a woman. She must dress, present herself in a certain manner, behave in a prescriptive way, and do the things that are expected of a young woman of her station. It is when she veers away from those norms, not when she faces dangerous criminal adversaries, is when she’s really punished.

What I especially enjoyed so much about the series is how nuanced the secondary characters have become. Inspector Treadles, for example, a very likable character because he’s so upstanding and loves his wife, becomes more complex as he grapples with his own misogyny. Several of the male characters wrestle with their expectations of Holmes and her crew of fully capable women, even when they get it right. (The book would be downright frustrating if Thomas wasn’t such a clever writer.)

My singular criticism would be that Charlotte herself is not as nuanced as some of the secondary characters. Her motivations, desires, wishes, and pain points are obscured, even as she lays those of her subjects bare, and the plot uses the other people in her life, her family and friends, to supply the emotional motivation for Holmes to continue her work. It is as though a woman could not be as brilliant and cunning as the great Sherlock Holmes, and also have an emotional inner life…

Maybe part of the puzzle, though, is piecing that together. I am on to the third book now.

PS — I was asked whether this could be read as a standalone. My opinion is no, sorry. I’m sure it could be, but it’d be awfully confusing, and the ending might not be very satisfying if you’re not planning on finishing the series.

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