Megan Casey reviews The Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series by Sandra de Helen

The Hounding  (Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series Book 1)

Pastiche: “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” For decades, the word pastiche was commonly used to refer to stories about Sherlock Holmes that were not written by A. Conan Doyle. Perhaps the most famous is The Seven-Percent Solution, which was a best seller for Nicholas Meyer in 1974. More recently, Laurie R. King (who also writes lesbian mysteries featuring Kate Martinelli) has created the Mary Russell Mystery Series, which features the iconic sleuth. Holmes also appears in Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series. In fact, Amazon.com lists over 7000 paperbacks inspired by Holmes.

As far as the lesbian mystery genre goes, characters based on Holmes and Watson appear in Nene Adams’ Gaslight Series, Olivia Stowe’s Charlotte Diamond Series, Debra Hyde’s Charlotte Olmes Series. There is more than a subtle similarity to Holmes and Watson in Iza Moreau’s The XYZ Mysteries, with Xande Calhoun as Holmes and her sister Yolande as Watson. There are stories about Holmes and Watson as lesbians and Holmes and Watson as gay. Now, Sandra de Helen has become one of the latest pasticheurs with her series about Shirley Combs and her friend Dr. Mary Watson. In the first novel, The Hounding, neither character is either gay or lesbian, or even hetero. But we’ll get to that in a paragraph or two.

We don’t hear the word pastiche much any more. Today, it’s called “fan fiction.” I suspect that The Hounding began as fan fiction, and perhaps that’s why it isn’t as strong as it could be. For one thing, the author makes over 15 references to Sherlock Holmes himself. A couple of the characters joke about the Sherlock Holmes/Shirley Combs vocal similarity. And the language sometimes is just too Holmesian (despite the story being set in modern-day Oregon) to be anything but fan fiction. Here are a couple of for instances:

“I have been engaged by Miss Goldenhawk Vandeleur to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of her mother, Pricilla Leoin.”

“Only a slight upward movement of Shirley’s left eyebrow would have given away her surprise, and only an observer as keen as Shirley herself would have seen it.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, which may be the newest literary genre. In The Hounding, the writing is strong and the mystery is worthy of the master himself. In short, a woman is mauled by dogs, causing her to have a heart attack and die. But who set the dogs on her and where are they now? Shirley Combs, private investigator and portfolio analyst, takes on the job of finding the answer. But unless an author is actually writing about the real Holmes and Watson, it is not a good idea to stick too close to the original.

There is little backstory about either Shirley or Mary. Both consider themselves asexual and both live alone: Shirley in Portland, Oregon and Mary in nearby Lake Oswego. And neither, unfortunately, seems to have a very interesting personality. Of the two, though, it is Mary—the primary narrator—who has the most promise. It is she who gets an odd feeling when she sees an attractive woman and it is she who continually questions her strange relationship with Shirley. Shirley seems to question nothing.

And I can’t let this review go without discussing point of view. As you will remember, most—but not all—of the original Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated in their entirety by Watson, who sees all and hears all. Holmes includes him in his adventures just so that Watson is in attendance, not only as a friend, but as an observer. De Helen knows this well, but often finds it difficult to insert her Watson into the action, although this action is important to the story. Here’s how Mary Watson explains her ability to do it. Evidently, like Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series, Shirley has a photographic memory and is able to give a thorough account of her outings, as when Mary says, “she dictated her word by word account for me.” Then Mary continues, “I use my creative license to add what I imagine to be the thoughts and emotions of all the players.” She adds later, “It’s easy to imagine what happened next.” This is one of the cleverest point-of-view ploys I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a glitch in the artistry.

But that’s enough skating around. As fan fiction, The Hounding is as good as most–as creative literature, not so much. But despite everything, it is an interesting and well-developed mystery. I recommend it for any Holmes/Watson obsessives.

The Illustrious Client (Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series Book 2)

One of the many good things about this, the second novel in the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series, is that it stands alone very well. Conversely, perhaps the best way to review this novel is by contrasting it to its predecessor.

Let’s start with the Holmes/Watson comparisons. In the first book, de Helen refers to the original iconic detective no less than 15 times. Well, guess how many comparisons she makes this time? Answer: zero. What this means is that the author has become more confident in her talents and more creative in her thinking. Ditto about her “explanations” about inconsistent point of view. Although her narrative shifts once or twice from Dr. Watson to omniscient, the author genuinely tries to stay within Watson’s experience. Not perfect, but a vast improvement.

The plot is fairly complex, as was the previous book’s. Shirley is hired to dissuade a famous young pop star, Oceane, from her romance with international playgirl Zaro, who was once (while disguised as a male) a soldier in the Afghan army. But when Zaro is attacked with acid, the sleuth’s job becomes one of finding the culprit. Although, as I said, the story is a good one, the main merit of this book is the growth of Mary Watson. Although in the first book there were a couple of exquisitely tiny hints that Mary might not be quite as asexual as she believes, in this book she discovers, quite by surprise, her lesbian identity. Although from puberty, she assumed she was simply asexual, she suddenly found that “something had awakened in me,” when she met real estate agent Beth Adams. The idea of a romance—maybe even a sexual relationship!—causes her to gush, “I was excited to the point of near-hysteria.” This is really good stuff: details that are all-too-rare in lesbian fiction, although we have all been there.

A touch worth noting, Shirley’s new “administrative assistant” has the greatest first name in lesbian literature: Lix. Hopefully in the next book we will learn her last name and some backstory. And maybe some more about Shirley, too. Or maybe Lix and Shirley will get it on. Whoo weee. I can’t wait. And Lix should get her own series. You heard it all here first.

Finally—and I rarely comment on this—the formatting of the e-book for this novel is the most sophisticated I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot. It may presage the day when e-books can look identical to print versions.

Negatives? Well the POV thing is still a little glitchy, as is Shirley’s lack of real individuality. And now that Sherlock himself is absent from de Helen’s pages, maybe it is time to stray from rewriting actual or nearly actual Conan Doyle titles.

Bottom line, give this one close to a 4; it is certainly worth a read. With the author continuing to hone her talents, I am looking forward to the next one.

For more than 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website athttp://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Black By Gaslight by Nene Adams

There’s a lot to say about this novel—both good and bad. It starts out like a house on fire but finishes in smoldering ruins. Here are some of the good things. First, there is the setting: 1888 London, smoggy, dark, and smelly. Lady Evangeline (Lina, or “the dark-haired lady”) St. Claire is an independently wealthy private investigator. She is tall and strong and versed in the martial arts, like Xena, who, along with Sherlock Holmes, is her inspiration. The Gaby/Watson character is called Rhiannon Moore, who Lina rescues from a life on the streets after falling in love with her at first sight.

In an odd twist, there is another Sherlock Holmes character that plays a big role in the novel. He is called Sherrinford Pike, who lives with his lover, Dr. Ormond Sacker. Lina’s love/hate relationship with Pike is charming and often hilarious. When she accuses him of shooting at her through a dressmaker’s window, he denies it, “even if I did once introduce a cobra into your sitting room. . . . Besides, I thought that you’d sworn not to mention that unfortunate incident with the air rifle again, St. Claire. . . . [and] the arsenic-filled bonbons were an honest mistake committed only once.”

And if that sounds a bit over the top, well, so is everything else in Black by Gaslight. Lina’s language is the language of Jane Austen squared—or maybe the language of the penny dreadfuls that Rhiannon delights in reading. “Rage beat at her and filled her veins with liquid fire. A red mist enshrouded her vision.” And to be truthful, the language is often so well—or oddly—crafted that it escapes being simply romance-novel drivel and often rises to the level of actual creativity. So does the relationship between Lina and Rhiannon. Both are smitten with the other at once, but neither thinks it appropriate to mention it to the other. And when their passion gets the best of them—as it does in strange situations, such as in a carriage when they are chasing a murderer—they will then play it down, or try to pretend it didn’t happen.

But it is almost as if the author gets tired of the novel halfway through. Repetition creeps in, as do inanities. The language becomes tedious, the amount of attention to describing Victorian-era women’s attire takes up too much space, the love story becomes sappy, important incidents are forced—rather than intelligently woven—into the plot, gore is splattered more-than-generously on virtually everything. And then there is the ending, where at least one of the women takes a series of actions so stupid that it defies even my imagination—which is one that has seen more than its share of ridiculous endings. It becomes just another Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the ripper novels, with Jack as someone that constantly hears the voices of prostitutes talking to him. Motivation? Backstory?

The main thing wrong with this novel is the same thing that is wrong with most independently published books in general and lesbian mysteries in particular: the lack of an even halfway-decent editor. Yes, this is an Uber novel and one that was almost certainly first posted to a fan site. And yes, fan sites are notorious for their unabashed enthusiasm for everything Xena (or everything Hermione or everything Kate Janeway) and lack of critical sensibility.

But lack of critical thinking bespeaks a lack of education, and a lack of education is the downfall of civilizations. If you don’t believe me, look around you. What’s worse, competent editors are very few and far between—it takes a great deal of study and reading to even attempt it, while university courses in the fine arts are becoming more and more unfunded. And let’s go even further; good editors command a respectable fee—as indeed they should—and few budding authors or even independent presses can afford one.

So too bad, what started out as a potential Top 20 List novel turned into something that I finished with a sense of relief. What could—with a very competent editor—have been rated near a 5 ends up at somewhere near a 3.

For 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

 

Megan Casey writes about The Top 20 Lesbian Mystery Novels

Did you know that there are over 1000 lesbian mystery titles? Or that there are over 250 authors of lesbian mysteries, more than 95 percent of whom are still alive and writing? It’s true, but many readers—probably most readers—have never read a single book in the lesbian mystery genre. That’s a shame, because some of them are wonderfully written, exciting, educational, sexy, emotionally satisfying, and yes, important.

Let’s go ahead and define a lesbian mystery. First, of course, the main character must be a lesbian or bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship. Second, the main character must investigate a crime or solve a mystery or puzzle that is central to the story line. That’s just about it, although the best of these offer a glimpse into some interesting aspect of the lesbian lifestyle. Protagonists can be private investigators, law enforcement officers, or amateur detectives of any profession as long as they are not werewolves, vampires, or other superhumans.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the thousand plus titles, the following list is an introductory guide to some of the best books in the genre. The list is in alphabetical order—there is no first, second, or third. They range from the highly literary to the pure and simple whodunit. And remember that the books on this list are my personal favorites—someone else’s list might be quite different. (Titles are linked to full reviews, covers are linked to Amazon pages.)

beverlymalibu   caseofthenotsonicenurse   deathtakes

The Beverly Malibu, by Katherine V. Forrest. There are many good novels in Forrest’s Kate Delafield series, but this one, with its motif of  Hollywood persecution during the McCarthy era, is probably the most important. It is also the book in which Kate meets the person she will live with for most of the rest of the series.

The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, by Mabel Maney. Probably not the most literary read on the list, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, with its parody of the Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew girls’ series books of the mid-20th century. Delightful and fun and more than a little silly.

Death Takes a Hike, by Peta Fox. This is the third and (so far) last book in the Jen Madden series. I list it instead of the first two because it takes some time to get to know Jen and figure out what the author is up to. Take note that the series is so filled with rough sex that it borders on BDSM, but Fox is probably the smartest writer in the bunch. Jen is an absolutely wonderful character with a mindset all her own.

goodbadwoman   gravesilence   houstontown

Good Bad Woman, by Elizabeth Woodcraft. A novel about a British barrister who gets involved with a torch singer. This mystery lands firmly in the literary world and includes a very interesting crash course on British law and the way it is handled. Woodcraft’s only other novel, Babyface, is every bit as noir and every bit as good.

Grave Silence, by Rose Beecham. Set near the desert in Colorado, this one is quite a thrilling adventure with characters that sometimes make Erskine Caldwell’s seem tame. The main character, Jude Devine, is an undercover FBI agent sent to the desert posing as a Sheriff’s detective. She essentially answers to no one.

Houston Town, by Deborah Powell. Powell’s superb use of language—and exciting storylines—make this book and its predecessor, Bayou City Secrets, winners on almost every level. A fairly unusual twist in the lesbian mystery genre, this hard-hitting series is set in 1930s.

ileftmyheart   idahocode   keepingsecrets

I Left My Heart, by Jaye Maiman. An honest look at the emotions behind the death of a loved one—and the resolve to find out the reason she died. Its relatively long length (over 300 pages) gives Maiman the opportunity to fully explore the themes of politics, religion, love, guilt, grief, and passion.

Idaho Code, by Joan Opyr. Bouncy story with a young protagonist, quirky characters, a cool girlfriend, and an odd mystery. Delightful, and its 321-page length gives the author room to move about. Beware of the sequel, however, which is a disappointing rehash.

Keeping Secrets, by Penny Mickelbury. This is the first of the excellent Mimi and Gianna series. Although it is a short novel, it introduces the interracial couple of Gianna and Mimi and provides the background for the rest of the series. It is one of the first series with dual protagonists. All four books are excellent.

lavenderhousemurder   lookingforammu   othersideofsilence

The Lavender House Murder, by Nikki Baker. Superior writing, craft, a winning but argumentative best friend, and deep introspection make this a standout. Virginia Kelly is the first African-American lesbian sleuth in fiction and Baker the first African-American Author. All four books in the series are highly recommended.

Looking for Ammu, by Claire Macquet. Not your typical whodunit, as the protagonist starts out simply looking for a friend. She doesn’t even know what a lesbian is until half the book is over, but what writing! A classic noir thriller that should be at the top of many lists, not just lists about lesbian mysteries. Deep and dark, seamy and satisfying.

The News in Small Towns, by Iza Moreau. A very different setting for this series—a redneck town in North Florida where Sue-Ann McKeown and her girlfriend Gina may be the only lesbians. A story with multiple puzzles, this is one of the most literary books on the list, and one of the most enjoyable series.

The Other Side of Silence, by Joan Drury.  The main draws here include the reclusive protagonist, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, and her main interest in life—to expose violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs. It is a powerful feminist mystery with a surprising and unusual ending.

patternedflute   shescoopstoconquer   tellmewhatyoulike

Outside In, by Nansi Barrett D’Arnuk. Compelling, riveting, undercover mystery that takes place mostly within a women’s prison. Honest, real, exciting, and professional. Another mystery where rough sex also has an important part to play.

The Patterned Flute, by Helen Shacklady. Interesting, free-spirited characters, portrayed well in realistic settings and a wild ride that left me on the edge of my seat. I loved the budding romance between the protagonist and her scheming and determined traveling companion.

She Scoops to Conquer, by Robin Brandeis. This is a stand-alone novel about a reporter in Louisville, Kentucky. Its intriguing and educational plot is interspersed with humor as Lane Montgomery and her erstwhile lover and newspaper rival—both serious femmes—duke it out for the story.

Tell Me What You Like, by Kate Allen. Delves into the S/M leather scene in a way that makes you want to know more. Good characters, good puzzle, good everything.

1222   unexpectedsparks   womenwithredhair

1222, by Anne Holt. Exciting, well-drawn, and professionally written and translated from the Norwegian. In this novel, ex-police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is a wheelchair user and is trapped with other passengers—one of them a murderer—in a train station during a horrible snow storm. The previous books in this series may be even better; but this is the only one I have read.

Unexpected Sparks, by Gina L. Dartt. A darling novel set in Nova Scotia featuring two of the best protagonists in lesbian literature: Kate Shannon, a bookstore owner, and Nikki Harris, a police dispatcher. Their courtship makes this novel—and this 2-novel series—special.

Woman with Red Hair, by Sigrid Brunel. This stand-alone novel is set in France and describes—expertly using the unusual third-person-present point of view—the protagonist’s search for her birth mother. Although maybe not as brilliant or groundbreaking as some of the other books on this list, it is certainly not one you can just read and forget.

There are other writers that came close to making this list: Lindy Cameron, Ellen Hart, Vivien Kelly, Val McDermid, Iona McGregor, and Barbara Wilson, but the titles I read, although very enjoyable, fell just short. See my full-length reviews of over 100 lesbian mystery novels—including the ones listed above—at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel

Megan Casey is a small-town librarian whose special interest is reading, studying, and popularizing the lesbian mystery novel. She moderates the Goodreads Lesbian Mystery study group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries