If you had had the good fortune to be alive back when the Sherlock Holmes stories were first appearing, your first encounter with the great detective would likely have been in a story in which he was outwitted–and by a woman, no less. A Scandal in Bohemia–published in the aftermath of two novels, neither of which enjoyed any particular popularity–is that story, which recounts Holmes’ confrontation with the great Irene Adler.
“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman,” writes Watson, and yet he assures us at the same time that Holmes had absolutely no romantic interest in Irene. Then again, what does Watson know of what goes on inside Holmes heart in these early stages? On the other hand, a tale of two enemies in love was cliché before clichés even existed, and one would hope that the great Sherlock Holmes could avoid that stereotype.
Thankfully, Amy Thomas’ The Detective and The Woman avoids that pitfall. The relationship it depicts between the two is an organic, slowly-developing, and, most importantly, human interaction. Unlike the numerous adaptations that portray Irene as an antagonist, with her role as Holmes’ opponent in one story amplified thousand-fold, this story makes her human. Irene is Holmes’ equal, but not his enemy. Though clever and strong, she is not a female copy of Sherlock, cold and logical. She feels and suffers and leads Holmes down the path to finding his humanity–a role that, in the canon, was only fulfilled by Watson. It’s an interesting and welcome twist.
As it turns out in this story, Irene’s marriage to Norton was an unhappy one, a manipulation by him to obtain her money. Widowed, she escapes to the United States, making her living as the singer she used to be and attempting to find her way in life once again. It is there that she encounters Holmes, who is on what’s called the Great Hiatus–that three-year period when he was presumed dead after his fateful encounter with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. In a beautifully described Florida of the turn of the century, the two solve a case in which Irene’s future is at stake, and, in the process, lay the foundations for a life-long relationship.
Though the mystery itself is a bit lackluster, it is certainly not bad, and definitely made up for by the interactions between the two characters. This particular story is also interspersed with some absolutely wonderful moments–such as the scene in which Irene settles down to pass a few hours reading a story about “a lost soldier, a young detective, a flat, a German word scraped on a wall, and the color red”–a story that is indisputably recognizable as A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel.
However, the same praise cannot be extended to Thomas’ characterization of Holmes himself–at least, not completely. He is hardly the genius detective we’ve become used to, rarely showing off those brilliant deductive abilities, and he also happens to be too much of a complete gentleman. Yet the Holmes of these early years is supposed to be a more manipulative, more emotionally-immature man– a side of him that hardly appears in the novel. Aside from a wonderful scene in which Irene bursts out laughing, leading Holmes to confusedly state that the “logic of the situation” escapes him–a scene not unreminiscent of the emotionally-clueless Sherlock in the recent BBC series–Holmes feels like too perfect a man.
Nevertheless, the story winds believably through a beautiful setting interspersed with historical figures–Thomas Edison in particular–to end sweetly on the Sussex Downs, a setting recognizable by most Holmes fans as that secluded locale where the great detective retires at the end of his career to raise bees. In another welcome twist, however, it turns out that it’s something besides a desire for seclusion that leads Holmes to his bees.