#778: Minor Felonies – A Study in Charlotte (2016) by Brittany Cavallaro

Sometimes I plan ahead — c.f. a review of a novel by R. Austin Freeman in the same week as a podcast episode about R. Austin Freeman — and sometimes I really should. Rest assured, it will haunt me for years that I didn’t review this updating of the Holmes/Watson dynamic in the same week as Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940).

The conceit here is quite nifty: taking the perspective seen elsewhere that Sherock Holmes and Dr. John Watson were real people, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was the literary executor for Watson, it brings us up to the modern day by focussing on the great-great-great grandchildren of those famous gentlemen: Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson. In the intervening generations, rights to stories have been squandered by libatious antecedents and the Holmes and Watson familiers have grown distant from each other: the former recoiling from the world to raise their offspring in the talents of their famous forebear, the latter going into actual jobs and being occasionally trotted out for publicity purposes.

Charlotte and Jamie end up in each other’s orbits when, aged 16, they both wind up as pupils of the prestigious Sherringford school in Connecticut — yes, yet another prestigious private school in a book for younger readers, the third one this month alone; take that, plebs of state sector education — and the murder of a pupil who had riled both of them in very different ways sees them joining forces the clear their names of the suspicion that begins to form around them. And then a second puil is attacked…and the crime scenes in both cases bear striking resemblances to some of Dr. Watson’s famous narratives…

Now, look, let’s get this out of the way: it is frankly preposterous that any such a scheme, so blatantly pointing the finger at someone close to Sherlockiana, would ever see this Holmes and Watson suspected. Were I the descendant of the world’s most famous detective, the last thing I would do is kill someone in the manner of ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892) and then leave a collection of Holmes short stories with that story bookmarked on the dead body. Equally, if I felt the need to beat someone half to death, I wouldn’t also then force a fake blue gemstone down their throat so that it reminded people of ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ (1892). This need to really force in the Holmes parallels is, at best, ungainly, and at worst…just bad writing, coming across like pandering for the sake of proving you’ve heard of some Sherlock Holmes stories.

And Brittany Cavallaro is better than that, because she sprinkles this book with some lovely, delightfully subtle Holmes references that betoken a far keener eye whe it comes to paying homage:

“Don’t you need to find out which room is theirs?” I asked

She tossed me a look, like I had asked her if the earth went around the sun. “Watson, just give me a lift.”

Equally, because we kow that Doyle wasn’t big on continuity and scientific consistency, some fun is had speculating on the nature of the nonsense explanations given in the likes of ‘The Speckled Band’, or wondering what Watson’s undocumented response to ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ (1913) was likely to have been. And, because these stories exist in our reailty, we also get a bit of a reflection on the famous on-screen comedic depiction of Watson by Nigel Bruce (1939-46) alongside Basil Rathbone. Cavallaro spoils quite a few classic Doyle tales, so be aware of that before going in, but she also fold these references in lovingly, reverently, and with a skill that is difficult not to admire.

God, this makes me feel anxious these days…

The book is at its best, for the most part, in making Jamie Watson faintly overawed in the presence of Charlotte Holmes, and in charting their growing reliance on each other that gets interrupted in a believable way only by Waton’s occasional panics that maybe Holmes really is the sociopath her upbringing would be expected to created. He vacillates on this theme probably one time too many, but it’s refreshing to see teenage angst and uncertainty put to good use (“What if she actually did kill Lee fucking Dobson and decided, for a lark, to drag me along, pretending to solve that crime that she committed? What if Holmes was so unnerved by someone calling her a murderer because she was, in fact, a murderer?”). Holmes is so removed, so unknowable, that such a response is enturely natural — and then, at times, she becomes a sixteen year-old girl with friends and a desire to understand and fit in, and it’s a little heartbreaking and sort of fabulous.

That Jamie Watson and his father have such a fractured relationship, too, is wonderfully handled. Watson, Snr. having divorced Watson’s mother and started a new family near Sherringford, father and son are barely on speaking terms until the seriousness of the situation and Watson, Snr’s tutelary obligations force them together and some wonderfully jagged interactions unfold under the blanket of parental support:

Holmes had hoisted herself up onto one of the stools at the counter, and she sat there, swinging her legs while her eyes roved around the room. I watched her put together the story of this house, of my childhood, the way a soldier assembles a gun in the dark. At least one of us knew how to behave normally — though for the record, this may have been the first time it was her, and not me.

All the surrounding flotsam that comes with the history of the characters is adroitly observed — Holmes being involved on a case with Scotland Yard for the first time aged 10; Jamie’s father emailing him a “Watsonian guide for the care and keeping of Holmses”; even the surrounding structure of the school with its late night poker games, tight-knit relationships (“Gossip was Sherringford’s favourite currency…”), passageways to stop nuns feeling the cold, and teenage boys bragging about their “negging” when picking up girls — and gives the world in which this occurs a surprisingly real and tangible air. Even Holmes’ drug addiction, the root of all manner of problems within the narrative, feels organic and realistic, and the difficulties to be faced landed more meaningfully because of it.

However, I find the book harder to recommend as a mystery.

The central mystery just…does not work, is not that interesting, and could be resolved by Holmes telling Watson there’s something she had no real reason to withhold (hint: if Holmes and Watson are real, which other character might also have descedents that wish Holmes harm? This is less of a spoiler than you might think, but jeez…). Some effort is made to surround Jamie with suspicious types who could be Up To No Good — a house-mother, a roommate, various school staff — but easily the biggest red herring of the lot (the event that results in him getting his hands cut up) exists as it does purely because it needs to appear part of the murder mystery. And, hairy Aaron, don’t get me started on the various problems — moral, ethical, professional, narrative, just everything — it raises. Cavallaro skates over this very quickly, but mainly because it’s a novel in its own right.

Six feet, people…!

There’s also the small matter of Charlotte Holmes apparently needing to be invested with characteristics of Sherlock — this is addressed narratively, and makes for a fascinating prospect — but her deductions, the thing we want to see in a Holmes novel, are…sketchy at best. Someone had broken glass on their shoe, say, so can only have been in the one room featured in the book that contains broken glass. Hmmm. Also, they follow a man into some tunnels, see his footprints heading into a room, go into the room and…he’s not there — but if he had left it, then or at any previous time, there would be other footprints, would there not? This is never addressed. And the finale, deliberately leaning hard into ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ is big on convenience, short of reasoning, divested of logic, and exists only to provide a bit more Teen Angst which, by that point, feels like a well that has been drawn from perhaps three or four times too many. I appreciate I’m not the target audience, but for the mystery part of a Holmes-universe mystery to rely so little on actual Holmesian reasoning and intelligence makes it feel like something someone Crtl+V’d the names Holmes and Watson into just to generate a buzz.

This, then, is a curate’s egg. As it is far more interested in its characters that its plot, choosing to invite expectations of the most famous plot machine there is seems an odd choice. The series runs to four books and, honestly, I can believe now that the mystery element will play a decreasing role before Holmes and Watson decide they can’t be together at the end of Book 4 because that’s the sort of Unrequited Something-Something, Life Is Suffering teenage vibe this book has already. Brittany Cavallaro is clearly a talented author with a keen eye for the peculiarities of human interaction, but I don’t know if that’s sufficient for something that pitches itself into the milieu she has chosen.


The Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson series by Brittany Cavallaro:

1. A Study in Charlotte (2016)
2. The Last of August (2017)
3. The Case for Jamie (2018)
4. A Question of Holmes (2019)

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