Robyn DeHart's A Study in Scandal is by no stretch of the imagination a Sherlockian pastiche. It is, and is marketed as, a "historical romance" — yes, the genre popularly dismissed as "bodice-rippers". As one might expect of such a work, it is quick reading, somewhat amusing, and provocative of no particular emotion except when the central male and female characters are alone at last and the gloves (and considerably more) come off. I will say that I have read much worse sex scenes in better books, and enjoyed them less.
The premise here, and the excuse for describing this book as in any sense Sherlockian, is that Amelia Watersfield is a young woman in Victorian London who, along with a few of her friends, is an enthusiastic fan of Sherlock Holmes as his adventures are published month by month in the Strand Magazine. She is thrilled when a mystery develops in her own household — an Egyptian curio is stolen from her father's collection — and she can call on the next best thing to the fictional Holmes, a flesh-and-blood detective (with the emphasis definitely on the flesh) named Colin Brindley. The events that one might anticipate in a romance novel ensue: there is attraction, there are quarrels, there is conflict between desire and propriety, and eventually there is a happy understanding. (Eventually there would also be a dramatic embrace, but this is the kind of romance novel in which much more than an embrace has already happened along the way.) To keep the Sherlockian reader very slightly gratified as the plot progresses, some of the tension between Amelia and Colin is based on her continuing fascination with Sherlock Holmes, and his understandable insistence on being himself rather than a second-best to the hero of the Strand. Incidentally he does, with considerable interference and some assistance from her, manage to solve the mystery and recover the artifact, a bust of Nefertiti. It is some indication of how seriously the mystery is to be taken as part of this book that the author never has anyone describe the size of the bust or even what exactly it is made of.
The events of A Study in Scandal, as has been said, take place in Victorian London. The characters, however, do not seem to live there; they are all modern North Americans in their behaviour, their thoughts, the freedom open to them, and above all Amelia's sexual enthusiasm. The oddity is not that the author reveals the genuine sexuality that Victorians, like other people, felt and sometimes passionately expressed; it is that Amelia seems to feel no uncertainties as she throws herself into her hero's arms and bed, and he gives little evidence of experiencing any of the sensations one might expect in the circumstances. Robyn DeHart has apparently not read The French Lieutenant's Woman.
But then nothing else in the narrative is really Victorian either. It offers no local colour, nothing authentic about daily life in London; even the names of businesses do not ring true, and Amelia is randomly titled "Miss" and "Lady" for no apparent reason. The author has not troubled to find out anything about the world in which her heroine ostensibly lives, and one conjectures that the primary audience for this improbable little book doesn't care in the least. It will, however, appear for all time in bibliographies of works with peripheral appeal for Sherlockian collectors; and one conjectures that its primary audience won't care about that either.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2009