A Study In Honor by Claire O’Dell takes the underlying story-structure of the Sherlock Holmes stories and re-envisions it as a near-future thriller where Watson and Holmes are both queer black women in a USA that would be called dystopian if it weren’t to easy to see how we might get from here to there. Dr. Janet Watson, former army surgeon, has been discharged after losing an arm to the New Civil War. Her cybernetic prosthesis isn’t advanced enough for her to resume surgery but she returns to Washington D.C. to find what work she can until the VA agrees to upgrade the hardware. She’s just barely not too proud to accept help on both the job and housing front from Sara Holmes, an arrogant, charming, maddening woman whose combination of cybernetic data feeds and brilliant deductive powers to her employers. Holmes isn’t saying just who those employers are, but Watson can make some good guesses.
Watson grits her teeth and takes a job as a medical technician at the VA, seeing the echo of her own post-battle trauma in the patients she processes. And then some of those patients start dying unexpectedly. Patients who seem to intersect at key points in the recent past. When Watson is suddenly targeted from all sides, is it due to her own past, her investigations, or her association with Sara Holmes? And does she trust Holmes enough to find out?
O’Dell has created two very different personalities: one clawing her way up from a working class background, one born of privilege. One damaged to the edge of breaking by her experiences in the war, one smooth and polished and always so very much in control. But you believe that these two can be thrown together, can survive the initial distrust and conflict, and can begin to forge what we recognize as the enduring Holmes/Watson partnership that has made its way into legend. As with the original canon, we see the events through Watson’s eyes, leaving the internal workings of Holmes’s mind (and her backstory) enough of a mystery to be intriguing. The story is populated with crisply drawn supporting characters, each of whom is well enough realized to have their own story.
The Writing Style
The story is immersive and immediate, bringing the reader up to speed on the setting and its relation to our timeline quickly through the use of journal entries and reminiscences. Watson’s voice is a close, personal one without ever feeling claustrophobic. I’d call this much more of a thriller than a mystery. The reader isn’t expected to be able to jump ahead and deduce the answers, but rather is drawn along experiencing the terror and excitement alongside the protagonists. O’Dell has pulled off the knack of showing us a world that feels all too plausible, just at the edge of our imagining. (I believe some of the political backstory had to be revised to keep up with current events.)
Even though the book is clearly inspired by the Sherlock Holmes interpersonal dynamics, you never feel like you’re getting a recycled classic. The science-fictional elements keep you guessing as to what may and may not be plausible within the conflict. The psychology of the characters and how they interact both evokes the original characters and brings new insight, simply by the reframing of identity. Both Watson and Holmes are casually queer–a reference to a past relationship, the flavor of the semi-flirtatious teasing–without romance ever being directly on the table between them or an overshadowing thread in the book.
When I like a book as solidly as I do this one, I tend to use the “cons” section for reader advisories. The story deals with PTSD and wartime trauma, as well as a fairly frightening vision of what could easily be our own future. As noted above, the two protagonists are solidly established as queer but don’t read the book expecting a romance.
If you want a thriller with a touch of mystery and rock-solid writing, I give this book a strong recommendation. (And I say that as someone who doesn’t tend to read thrillers as a first choice.)
Excerpt from A Study In Honor by Claire O’Dell
I shivered and passed a hand over my eyes.
Only then did I notice a woman standing in the corner.
She was tall and lean. Her complexion was the darkest brown I had ever seen, the angles of her face were sharp enough to cut, and she wore her hair in locs, arranged in a careless, complicated fashion wound around her head, then plaited and pinned, so they fell in a thick cascade down her back. The cant of her cheekbones, the almost imperceptible folds next to her eyes, spoke of East Asia, or certain nations in Africa. Of a world outside my own.
And she was wealthy. I could tell by the clothes she wore. Loose trousers cut in the latest fashion, and a thin sleeveless shirt made from an ivory cloth, gleaming bright as sunlight and shot through with gold threads. A few pearls were visible among her locs.
Holmes’s expression was contained, but I had the distinct impression she was amused. “Bell,” she said, her voice rough and low. “What have you brought me?”
“A friend,” Jacob said. “Sara Holmes, my friend Dr. Janet Watson. Shake hands, Sara. I know you can.”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9780062699305
- Publisher: Harper Voyager
Claire O’Dell Online
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