Review by Chris Redmond
Remember that time when Sherlock Holmes went to investigate a burglary, and was so horny he could hardly concentrate on the clues? Oh, it may not ring a bell from your reading of the authentic Canon, but you'll certainly remember it — along with some other scenes rich in erotic tension — after reading Elinor Gray's Compound a Felony.
This work seems to have begun as fanfic writings posted on the AO3 website, but has become a novel, available both in print (233 pages) and as an e-book, with well-rounded character development over several years in the unchanging Baker Street world of Sherlock Holmes.
Character, not plot, is the strength here, but there's no point pretending that the book is anything different from what it is. It's all about sex, explicit sex, gay sex, sex between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The word “pornography” is perhaps too judgemental for a book that has, to quote a judge from a few decades back, redeeming social value, but the distinction is a very fine one. Any random page in Compounding a Felony is likely to offer love-bites, love-juices, anatomical bliss and explicit penetration.
This is not the place to discuss (though I have discussed it elsewhere) the puzzling reality that many women, both heterosexual and lesbian, take great delight in writing, and reading, explicit sex scenes about gay men. For those who like that sort of thing, this is emphatically the sort of book they will like. For others, and this too might as well be said plainly, things will get boring before long.
Compounding a Felony is not the first explicit gay work of Sherlockian fiction. The genre is all around us, thanks to the hundreds or thousands of fans who “ship” Holmes and Watson in their fanfic, to be found on AO3 and elsewhere. Relatively little of it has been published to a commercial standard, but even there, this book is not the first. The first expression in print of the idea that Watson and Holmes were lovers came with the publication of Larry Townsend's The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1971 (reissued 1993). That book has some explicit content, but sticks close to the authentic Canon, retelling several stories with a same-sex twist.
The well-stocked library may also include My Dearest Holmes (2007) by Rohase Piercy; Kissing Sherlock Holmes (2011) by T. D. McKinney and Terry Wylis, which finds Watson and Holmes's love scenes alternating with developments in an investigation of espionage at a country house; and A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes (also 2011), an anthology edited by Joseph R. G. DeMarco. It seems safe to say that Elinor Gray's addition to the shelf has more explicit sex, and correspondingly less of anything else, than the books that have preceded it.
Two scenes in this book that are not sexual are, therefore, thought-provoking. One is the burglary, already referred to, which Holmes investigates while sexually aroused by Watson (and accompanied by a Watson who is hardly less aroused). The problem and the solution are provided, but not the clues that must have lain in between; it seems safe to say, however, that the case had none of those features of grotesque interest that Watson generally looked for in choosing material for publication. Several times it is made clear that Holmes could be reduced to virtually begging Scotland Yard for cases, an insight that ought to be carried from this book into other Sherlockian analyses of the Baker Street career.
The other interlude of actual professional work by the world-renowned detective is of more interest, and perhaps it was hasty to say that it was not sexual. Certainly it is not homosexual, but there are unquestionably erotic implications, laid on thick, in a scene of Holmes done up in formal attire, infiltrating a diplomat's ball, dancing with a beautiful foreign agent and deftly removing diamonds from her neck and documents from her dress without her knowledge. It is a wickedly ingenious scene to provide variation and stimulation, part way through a narrative of Holmes's utter captivity to same-sex attraction.
The story is told alternately from Holmes's and Watson's journals, and Gray does a fine job of both, making Holmes sound plausible and Watson recognizably Watsonian, though not so mellifluous as in the Canon itself. She is a talented author and certainly a master of the technical aspects of writing, from pacing to imagery, diction and grammar. Erotica always poses a risk of repetitive tedium or bathos in prolonged descriptions of sex; Gray writes in a precise, restrained way, even about extremes of sensation, and never seems to fall into the trap of “bad sex scene” prose. (Only a few objective errors mar the text anywhere; they include some difficulties with “lay” and “lie”, perhaps an unfortunate verb to be a source of unreliability in a book that has so much to do with beds.)
It is worth emphasizing that the characters here are the real Holmes and Watson, the men who lived in Baker Street in the 1880s and 1890s and whose lives are glimpsed in those stories published by Doubleday and others (and brought to the screen by Granada thirty years ago). This book is in no way about, and seems to owe nothing to, the Holmes and Watson played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
Whether Gray's portrayal of Holmes and Watson is convincing, whether the things she has them doing are compatible with the things they indisputably do in the original tales, is a matter of judgement. Practically everyone is aware that people, even the most upright men of affairs, generally have sexual urges and engage in sexual behaviour, though they may hide it from the world, so why not Sherlock Holmes? It is nothing new to suggest that his inclinations were homosexual and directed at Watson, though it does need to be emphasized that nothing in the original stories expresses that. Grant, however, that Holmes and Watson could have been homosexual, and that their passions for physical pleasure were as great as their passions for justice and logic and violin music, and this sort of thing might, just possibly, have been going on behind the shutters at 221B.
Gray follows what seems to be the convention in the great majority of same-sex Holmes-and-Watson fanfic, making the doctor the dominant partner and Holmes the submissive. Perhaps that only makes sense: Gray's Watson “takes control” of Holmes mostly when he has been working to his intellectual limits and needs to escape his own high-strung personality by facing his physical needs and limitations. It is a sophisticated and intriguing idea.
The title of the title comes from an offhand remark by Sherlock Holmes in “The Three Gables”: “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony, as usual.” It is not otherwise addressed in the text. Quite possibly the author intended the title as a reminder that homosexual intercourse was indeed a felony in Holmes's time — or rather, in most of Holmes's time. The two lovers take stringent precautions from beginning to end of the book, from 1881 to 1899, to make sure that they are not detected; Mrs. Hudson gets more than her share of weekends off, and the sitting-room door is kept carefully locked. But unfortunately the book makes no direct reference to a development that must have been of enormous importance to this Holmes and this Watson, the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in August 1885, making illegal “gross indecency... in public or in private.” In other words, the sort of thing Holmes and Watson were apparently doing in their sitting-room and bedrooms (and elsewhere, the novel suggests) was perfectly legal for the first four years they were doing it, but a crime afterwards. It seems to me that a couple of professional lawmen might have had a bit more to say about that situation.
Compound a Felony does not match well with my own taste in erotica, but it is an important piece of Sherlockian writing and I am glad to have a chance to review it.