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In mediocre neo-Victorian fiction, all roads indeed do lead to Whitechapel. Specifically, they lead to Jack the Ripper, because the bankrupt imagination gravitates to the unsolvable mystery of the man whom nobody seemed to know and who eviscerated eight women. Michelle Birkby's new Sherlock Holmes spinoff's tongue-in-cheek title ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL acknowledges the cliche that Jack the Ripper has become, especially within the modern Sherlock Holmes storyworld. Then, she subverts it--but not too boldly.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL, the American edition of Birkby's debut novel THE HOUSE AT BAKER STREET (UK), is the memoir of Mrs. Martha Hudson, Sherlock Holmes's famous landlady and housekeeper. As the rather tired and clumsily sexist UK tag line insists, "behind every great man stands a great woman," and Birkby's Mrs. Hudson is certainly a great woman. Whether she really thinks Holmes a great man, this reviewer leaves it to Birkby's reader to decide. In this version of events, Mrs. Hudson takes Holmes in because he's interesting and, since the death of her soldier husband, she's been a bit bored. However, he fails to deliver adventure to her as he delivers it to his sometime co-lodger Dr. John Watson. Consequently, with the help of an acoustically advantageous air vent, Mrs. Hudson turns to crimesolving on her own. She teams up with Watson's first wife, the former Mary Morstan of THE SIGN OF THE FOUR (1890) and with The Woman, alias Irene Norton, formerly of questionable memory as Irene Adler. They investigate a blackmail scheme that Holmes, with evident misogyny, has overlooked. What follows is dramatically interesting and puts the three women, a few other women, and the Baker Street dowager's kitchen at center stage. However, it treads familiar territory, at least to readers of "The Second Stain," "Charles Augustus Milverton" and other canonical Holmesian tales of blackmail.
This reviewer loves the idea of Mrs. Hudson as a detective, but even though it turns against Doyle, it's still a cliche, enough to have appeared as the premise of a comically bad Sherlock Holmes spinoff in a somewhat recent Sherlockian cozy by Vicky Delany,
BODY ON BAKER STREET. Even cliches can be made exciting if the world that surrounds them is sufficiently rich and makes us see the real world with new eyes. For instance, Sarah Waters' neo-Victorian suspense novels FINGERSMITH and AFFINITY achieve that goal with aplomb.
As for ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL, authorized by the Doyle family, it gives the women of Baker Street and surrounding environs something to do, but never really challenges the conventions of the mystery genre or sheds light on aspects of Victorian society unexplored by Doyle--nor on our own society in any obvious way. A prime example of this deficiency is Birkby's introduction of the Baker Street Irregulars, the gang of street boys who in Doyle's canon turn to Holmes for employment as a slightly less dangerous version of Dickens's Fagin. "Back then, during the last century, London's streets thronged with boys--and occasionally girls--running wild. They often had no home or family, or if they did, it was not somewhere they were welcome." Some stole food, and others, in a line very close to one written by Dickens, were "destined to end up in jail--or at the end of a hangman's rope." Why aren't they welcome at home? Why are they "destined" to their doom? If this was a problem only during the last century, has it disappeared in the twentieth? Birkby merely supplies exposition, to be got through quickly, so as to get to the meat of the story. The Irregulars constitute no looming, troubling enigma.
Even less enigmatic is Birkby's Holmes, who, though rightfully displaced from the protagonist's pedestal, seems too mundane for the fame he has accumulated. At one moment, he promises not "to look a gift horse in the mouth." Doyle's Holmes avoids cliche. Instead, his speech is defined by oddities that have become catch-phrases ("oscillating on the pavement.")
That said, ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL is the first book in Birkby's planned series. The second one, THE WOMEN OF BAKER STREET (UK) or NO ONE NOTICES THE BOYS (US) is out now in both countries. For a first adventure, ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL is promising. Birkby demonstrates a smart control of dramaturgy (what's going on above and below the air vent, for instance) and plot, so it is promising. After all, there was nothing particularly promising about Doyle's own first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A STUDY IN SCARLET, apart from the brief episode in which Watson meets Holmes and catalogues his arcane program of autodidactic vocational education. Unsurprisingly, it's hardly ever adapted for film, television, or the stage, at least not literally, and copies of the first edition remain hard to find and desperately sought after. Let's hope that will be the fate of ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITECHAPEL, once further instalments in the franchise take greater leaps into the unknown.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, January 2020
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