I came to this lauded series late. Have the first two on audio and once again, I’ve had to relearn that my ability to listen to audiobooks is severely limited. It took me days and days to read Hollow, buffeted as I was by day-job issues. It never offered that romance punch of happiness and rightness, but it was a worthy read nonetheless.
For those unfamiliar with Thomas’s series, she sets up her Victorian female detective as a sly critique of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Thomas imagines Sherlock Holmes as Charlotte, a cross-dressing, fallen woman amidst the puritanical strictures of Victorian England, who uses her troubling powers of detection and frighteningly incisive intellect to solve convoluted mysteries full of dastardly nemeses and plots within plots. In this third book in the series, Charlotte solves the murder of dear friend and eventual lover’s, Lord Ashburton Ingram’s, estranged wife, Lady Ingram. An ice queen if there ever was one, found murdered in the Ash’s estate’s ice house.
In the background of Charlotte’s story are her socially conforming, cruel parents, “Sherlock,” Charlotte’s father, Sir Henry, a man given to failing money-making schemes, lacking in imagination and replete with self-aggrandizing arrogance. But Charlotte is also surrounded by gentle, loving creatures, who aid and abet her sleuthing, her partner Mrs. Watson, a sharp as a tack, master of disguises widow, her lover and friend, Ash Ingram, and even her nervous-ninny but loving older sister, Livia.
As Charlotte is surrounded by loving friends and sympathetic “coppers,” she is in turn confronted with evil in the form of Moriarty and his cohort of baddies. While I didn’t end the novel any more of a fan of Thomas’s convoluted plotting than I was when I read her romances, I did end up a total Charlotte and co. fan-girl. I respected but never loved Thomas’s romances: too overwrought, trying too hard for a complexity that never convinced. But in this mystery series with a touch or possibility of romance, all on the hero’s part, Thomas has hit her stride with engaging, want-to-be-with-them-again characterization. Whether villain or foe, I was compelling to stay with these characters. Indeed, I loved them. They were flawed, but compelling in their limitations.
At the centre is Charlotte herself, with her sharp, logical detecting, mind and a kind of hopeless lack of understanding of her feelings, her penchant for plum cake, and her ability to hone in on the sordid mystery without ever flinching, her mind like an abacus, clicking beads her every realization and revelation of evil acts and the people committing them. One of the things I was fascinated by was how Charlotte never seemed to be moved by a sense of justice, but still impressed the reader with an understanding of right and wrong. While she appeared to be a woman never moved by her feelings, those moments when they came through, when she was helpless before them, even when she “caught” and suppressed them, well, they were romance enough.
I loved that Charlotte’s seeming “lack of feelings” bespoke only of her inability to read them. She is, from the moment I met her in The Hollow Of Fear, driven by love. That love, at first, appeared to be centred wholly on her sisters, they too victims of their parents’ selfish, driven-by-appearances “care”:
Miss Holmes … wanted to give Miss Livia books and trips abroad. And for Miss Bernadine, not just a harried maid but a nurse with experience and compassion for her care. Altogether. the obligations she planned to take on were fearsome for a young woman who could rely on only her own abilities.
Thomas is very good at showing the great difficulty this would pose to a woman in an age of strictly defined female roles, of class and propriety. Charlotte smashes them all to bits by disguise, by beating the machinators with brilliant traps, by always being one step ahead of plotters and destroyers of people and societies. BUT she is not driven by social justice, but by the necessity to save those she loves.
I loved Charlotte’s cold mind and chaotic heart and I especially loved descriptions of her such as these where these contradictory traits came through:
Trust Miss Holmes to strip the romance from any scenario and see only the brute, barebones facts underneath.
Charlotte Holmes and her insufferable self-sufficiency.
The woman was a holy terror: the sweetest face, the pillowiest bosom, and a perspicacity that stripped a man naked in seconds.
While Livia dreaded and fretted over a thousand ghastly possibilities, Charlotte dealt only with facts and actual events.
Charlotte Holmes, she of the nerves of Damascus steel …
What Thomas does is give Charlotte those “alpha hero” qualities that we love to witness foiled in romance. Thomas gives Charlotte the most amusing, loveable hero: a man who won’t settle for anything less than her heart, a man who defends his virtue against her advances. I chuckled: you sly romance writer you, Thomas. I leave you with this marvelous hero line, courtesy of “Ash”, Lord Ingram, to Charlotte, “Perhaps my body in bed is enough for you. But the reverse isn’t enough for me.” I’ll be back for more of this. With Miss Austen, we deem Sherry Thomas’s The Hollow Of Fear “no charm equal to tenderness of heart, Emma.
Sherry Thomas’s The Hollow Of Fear is published by Berkley. It was released on October 2nd and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley courtesy of Berkley, via Edelweiss+.