The House at Baker Street (Book Review)

The House at Baker Street

by Michelle Birkby
Pan Macmillan (February 2016)
352p. ISBN 9781509807222.

Publisher’s Summary

When Sherlock Holmes turns down the case of persecuted Laura Shirley, Mrs Hudson – the landlady of Baker Street – and Mary Watson – the wife of Dr Watson – resolve to take on the investigation themselves. From the kitchen of 221b, the two women begin their inquiries and enlist the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars and the infamous Irene Adler.

A trail of clues leads them to the darkest corners of Whitechapel, where the fearsome Ripper supposedly still stalks. They soon discover Laura Shirley is not the only woman at risk – the lives of many others are in danger too.

As Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson put together the pieces of an increasingly complex puzzle, the investigation becomes bigger than either of them could ever have imagined. Can they solve the case or are they just pawns in a much larger game?

General Review

The House at Baker Street may easily be one of the strongest pastiches that came out in 2016, and it’s certainly my favorite. It tells the story of Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson making the choice to take on the role of detective after Mr Holmes rejects a client they feel needs help. It is a simple enough premise, but one executed to great effect in this book.

The story is told from Mrs Hudson’s POV, and the narrative is occasionally meandering, occasionally wandering, and brings to mind a story not written down as a book but rather one she is speaking out loud. The writing style makes you feel as though you’re sitting at Mrs Hudson’s bedside, hearing her confess the secrets of her life, the things she’s never been able to bring herself to say before now.

And the secrets are a major theme in this book. The mystery itself, a somewhat straightforward case of blackmail (with a few twists), is naturally all about secrets: the secrets of the victimized women, the secrets of the blackmailer’s assistants, and the secrets of the blackmailers themselves. But what’s particularly lovely about this book are the secrets that aren’t actually tied to the mystery (which does sometimes become a plodding, ponderous thing, though not so much that it hurt my enjoyment of this book).

There are the secrets that Holmes and Watson keep from Mrs Hudson and Mary, the secrets of their clients and cases. There are the secrets that our heroines keep from the men, both personal and in the course of their own case. Most interesting to me are the secrets of Canon introduced to the reader, such as how Holmes and Mrs Hudson met, or how Mrs Hudson took the news that Mary and John were to marry. If you’ve ever wondered what happens behind the scenes of the Canon, this book offers up a number of fascinating suggestions.

There is also the secret Mrs Hudson withholds from the story, one that she hints at throughout the book. It’s a secret most Holmesians can easily discern, knowing as we do how the Canon goes, but seeing how this author will execute it keeps this reader, at least, feeling both excitement and dread for the books still to come in this series.

Mrs Hudson is a phenomenal protagonist, a woman who has always desired adventure and excitement and instead found herself creating what life she could on a heap of disappointments, satisfying herself by listening at the air vent to the cases that come to Holmes and Watson. She is a smart woman, and deeply compassionate – her relationship with the Irregulars is one of the strongest parts of this book – and she makes an excellent detective in the end, though it takes her a while to reach her conclusions. She doubts herself at times, and wonders what she’s doing, but she is a natural observer and has a talent for seeing the big picture. She’s more hesitant and practical than Mary, but she is also fiercely loyal and brave, two traits which drive her throughout the story.

There is enormous affection for Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, despite the narrative’s implicit criticism of Holmes’ seeming disregard for Mrs Shirley. Though both Mary and Mrs Hudson are disappointed in Holmes for doing so, he is never depicted as a villain or a cruel man, just a flawed one who sometimes cannot see beyond his own assumptions of the world. It’s a remarkably nuanced approach to Holmes, and one I’d love to see more of in other pastiches.

Many of the secondary characters drawn from Canon get a lovely treatment too. We get to know a number of Irregulars and see their own personal relationships with Mrs Hudson. There are Canonical antagonists, both infamous (as the publisher’s summary suggests) and less well known. While some readers may feel that the book packs too many Canonical characters in, I thought they all served a purpose and weren’t just there to show that the author knows her Canon. Rather, they are all given a rich personal life, and fit well within the themes of the book.

There is so much more that I want to mention and talk about in this review but can’t, for fear of spoilers. I truly adored this pastiche, and am very much looking forward to the sequel, which comes out in February of 2017, only two months from now!

What About Our Watson?

John Watson appears here as perfectly as one might hope. He is always haring off with Holmes, gun in hand, helping him with his current cases. He is shown as intensely loyal to Holmes, caring and respectful of Mary, and also as a kind and loyal friend to Mrs Hudson. We get to see him as a doctor on multiple occasions, and every time he is competent and comforting. He is also the ultimate secret keeper, in my opinion, as he finds a way to both keep and respect Mary’s secrets while protecting Holmes’ as well. He is an excellent partner, friend, and husband. Honestly, he just wins all the husband awards in this book. I wish more people would portray the marriage between Mary and Watson like this: affectionate, teasing, and full of implicit trust.

And then there’s Mary. While this Society is devoted to John H Watson, I decided that Mary Watson should be my focus when discussing the Watsonian aspects of this book. As it is written in the book, “If he loved her, she must be worth his loving.”

Mary Watson is an absolute gem, and is the best part of this book for me. She is truly the Mary Watson we meet in SIGN, so incredibly smart and adventurous and more than a match for John. Mary is the energy of our detective duo here, brimming with enthusiasm and passion for what they’re trying to do. Holmes himself credited Mary with “a decided genius” in SIGN, and it is on full display here. Her powers of deduction are less refined, but as she explains, she’s listened to enough of John’s stories to know the basics of applying the skills. She is also deeply compassionate and social, and her kindness often moves the case along as people instinctively open up to her (“birds to a lighthouse” indeed!).

That isn’t to say she’s shown as perfect. In fact, Mary is a bit reckless, horribly stubborn, and has a sharp and abrupt temper, all of which cause problems for her at different points. But it’s impossible not to love Mary, who so desperately wants to help, and who so desperately wants to be more than a housewife.

I will admit, I haven’t seen many depictions of Mary in pastiches. She’s often relegated to the side as having waved Watson off for his own adventures, if she’s a character in them at all. But other books will be hard-pressed to show me a stronger, fiercer Mary than this one. This is a Mary who is certainly worthy of John Watson – although here, I might instead say that Watson is worthy of this Mary. I am certainly looking forward to the next book and finding out how Mary handles their latest mystery.

You Might Like This Book If You Like:

Women Protagonists; Backstories and Character-Driven Stories; the Baker Street Babes Podcast; Examinations of Class and Gender in Victorian London

(Note from Selena Buttons: This review was supposed to appear last Thursday, but was delayed by technical difficulties. Apologies, Lucy!)


Comments

The House at Baker Street (Book Review) — 4 Comments

  1. Hi ‘Lucy’:

    Thank you for your post–I very much appreciate your work. While I don’t read Holmes/Watson pastiches, I find your reviews very interesting.

    Margie/ ‘Mopsy’

    • It’s quite fascinating; I’m hoping more people will read it, as it’s certainly a book worthy of discussion. I haven’t found many pastiches that will raise other characters to the level of detective while simultaneously keeping Holmes and Watson at their Canonical standards, but this one does, and I appreciate it.

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