Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes

What other characters from English literature have captivated hearts and minds as thoroughly as Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion John Watson? Many fans imagine the relationship between these men is deep and more than platonic. In A Study in Lavender, the Holmes universe is queered and ten authors have devised stories in which Holmes and Watson are lovers, or investigate mysteries of inverts hidden from the laws and cultures of the Victorian era; even the indomitable Lestrade has his turn at love; and famous actors who helped put Holmes on the silver screen face trysts they never dared to film.

I was hoping this would be good and not just an attempt to cash in in the sudden mainstream awareness of the homosexual subtext that can be seen in the Holmes stories (thank you Robert Downey Jr!). And luckily I was proved right!

Before I start I'm going to have a little rant, feel free to skip this paragraph and go straight to the actual review, but I need to get this off my chest. I made the mistake of reading the Amazon reviews. They were a mixture of good and bad as you might expect, but the overall theme seemed to be either disappointment or a pleasant surprise at the lack of porn, as if the concept of gay romance without explicit sex scenes was completely alien to the reviewers. Most people would not assume that an anthology of Holmes stories focussing on romance in general would be dominated by erotica, why should an anthology of gay romance Holmes stories be any different? There's more to being gay that sex and orgies! And worse still I imagine not one of the people making those comments had any idea that they could possibly be considered homophobic. OK end of rant, back to the book.

There is a surprising lack of Holmes-Watson romance in this given the subtext in the books, which was a little disappointing. However, the stories that the authors chose to tell instead were interesting and the characters appealing so overall it didn't matter.

“The Adventure of the Bloody Coins” by Stephen Osborne This one features Mycroft as the suspect in the murder of a gay prostitute. It's not a bad detective story and really captures the feel of the Holmes novels but I would have preferred to see a little more about the relationship between the brothers since we were focussing on the rarely seen Mycroft. Unfortunately, other than one short scene at the end, we don't even see them in the same location, let alone get any insight into their relationship.

“The Case of the Wounded Heart” by Rajan Khanna. This one barely features Holmes or Watson at all, only one of them even appearing in person and that only to briefly impart some information relevant to the case and then vanish never to be seen again. It focusses on Lestrade. I have to admit I have a soft spot for the Inspector, so I was quite pleased about this. Lestrade has to solve a case on his own, without the help of the Detective, in order to avoid a scandal and to save his own career. The conclusion surprised me. I really enjoyed this one.

“The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon” by Katie Raynes. I'll be amazed if you don't figure out what is going on in this one long before the conclusion, but that doesn't matter. The characters are very well drawn and you will really be hoping Holmes can find a satisfactory solution to the case. Watson's slowness to figure out what is going on makes him feel a little slow to modern sensibilities, but you have to remember the culture and time he was living in. Good fun. One of my favourites.

“Court of Honor” by J. R. Campbell This one deals with a much darker type of justice than most of the others. I liked especially that that search for justice was driven as much by Watson as by Holmes and that they delivered it in a particularly poetic way (although the villains got to live which was more than they deserved in the circumstances).

“The Well-Educated Young Man” by William P. Coleman This is probably the longest entry in the collection and builds very slowly towards its conclusion. It focusses on a young male prostitute and I should definitely warn you that as well as the issues of homosexuality in Victorian times and how society and the law treated people who were gay it also focusses on child abuse and is quite uncomfortable to read in places. It is very well written and clearly well-researched. It is also good as a detective story. Inspector Stanley Hopkins gets to play a large role in this one and the author has fleshed him out from the brief sketch we see of him in the original novels and he's very good.

“The Bride and the Bachelors” by Vincent Kovar. This is another one where you may feel you are frustratingly far ahead of Watson because to modern eyes I feel the conclusion is pretty blatantly obvious. However, despite that it's quite a fun story and it has a happy if ... unusual solution. Another enjoyable if not all that memorable entry.

“The Adventure of the Hidden Lane” by Lyn C. A. Gardner Even in a collection which, given the laws and societal attitudes of the time, naturally tends towards angst, this is a sad one. It features an asexual, although not aromantic, Holmes and explores his relationship with Watson. The ending is especially melancholy.

“Whom God Destroys” by Ruth Sims This one features Holmes only as a fictional character. It is unusual, and dark, because it is narrated by the villain. A serial killer. I didn't really like this one. I don't want to go into the details of the story as I'm not sure what I can say without giving away too much of the plot. I wish I'd skipped it though.

“The Adventure of the Unidentified Flying Object” by Michael G. Cornelius This is an interesting one in that all the homosexual content is in the subtext. It's a well written mystery story featuring a 'UFO' and I very much enjoyed it. I liked the way in which it ended too, with a promise of a deeper relationship between Holmes and Watson when he is 'ready'.

“The Adventure of the Poesy Ring” by Elka Cloke Other than the entry focussing on Lestrade, which shows the aftermath of a sexual encounter, I think this is the most 'graphic' containing, as it does, a kiss between Holmes and Watson. The main story is the investigation of the death of a gay man and the disappearance of the ring he wore, but through that investigation Watson comes to some conclusions of his own. As to whether the kiss ever leads to more, that is left to our imaginations.

VERDICT - 3 stars. I'm not sure why I'm not rating it higher as I did enjoy most of the entries, but it feels like a 3 to me. Worth reading, but not worth going out of your way to find.

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