The other women in Holmes’ life – and what they get up to (Book Review)

Title: The House at Baker Street; Author: Michelle Birkby; Publisher: Pan Macmillan; Pages: 352; Price: Rs.399

In most of his career, Sherlock Holmes always made light of women – despite the story that made him famous, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, showing him outsmarted by one. Perhaps there were many more occasions but his loyal chronicler chose to spare him further blushes. Did others around him think differently?

Holmes may possibly be the most famous fictional character given the continuous interest in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the continuous reinterpretations in print, film and TV – both set in his time and world out of it (shown young/old, with or against other fictional and real characters of his era, in Britain and elsewhere and even married), but many of his associates have also been fortunate.

There are a range of derivative works starring other characters – Dr. Watson, adversary Professor Moriarty, elder brother Mycroft, Inspector Lestrade, and even the woman who outsmarted him, Irene Adler (in Caroline Nelson Douglas’ superb series), but the two most close to Holmes and Watson have rarely got their due.

That is until now – and its finally time that Mrs Hudson, Holmes’ landlady and “a long-suffering woman” with her eccentric and irregular lodger and Mary Morstan, the first wife of Dr. Watson, step out into the spotlight.

Aficionados will recall that while Mary Morstan plays a major role in Holmes’ second published adventure (“The Sign of Four”, 1887) and at the end, went on to marry Watson, she remained largely unseen ever since and was later discretely removed offstage, while Mrs. Hudson had a more regular appearance but remained virtually unnoticed – we even don’t know her first name though there is strong belief that she is the elderly maid, Martha in “His Last Bow”.

But debutante author Michelle Birkby who was first introduced to the wonder of Holmes when 13, which was also the time that the popular TV series starring Jeremy Brett came out and never lost her fascination for the detective, suddenly grew engrossed in Holmes’ landlady, when re-reading “The Adventure of the Empty House” in which Holmes returns from the dead (as we’ve been led to believe) and realising he has put in a hazard.

“I’d never really thought about Mrs. Hudson before, but I suddenly noticed her,” the author tells us, and came to the conclusion “that there’s more to this woman that meets the eye”.

Noting that there isn’t really much about her background in the books, the author says she “felt free to give her a history, and a maiden name and a personality straight out of my own imagination” given Conan Doyle “had given me just enough to spark my interest in her, and left enough unsaid to let my imagination roam”.

The result surpasses expectations, and includes an engaging, intricate mystery to boot. The good landlady, and Mary Morstan with whom she shares an old friendship, feel obliged to help a persecuted woman whom Holmes has refused to help and take on the investigation themselves.

But the path is scarcely simple and leads them to squalid but dangerous streets of Whitechapel, where the name of Jack the Ripper still lingers menacingly, and they find that its not just their client, but many others, who are at risk too. As they slowly struggle towards a solution, aided by the redoubtable Baker Street Irregulars and Irene Adler herself, the question is whether the issue is bigger than they thought.

And the game is afoot, though the footsteps are not the manly treads we have so far been accustomed to.

What makes the book interesting is not only the mystery – no less fiendish then what Holmes usually deals with – but also the unexpected, unique view of the detective , Watson and others, which can also be found in Douglas’ Adler series mentioned above but here have an added significance since the narrators are more closely involved – and hopefully better disposed.

If this strikes your fancy, then be content – the author tells us the sequel is at the editing stage, the third at the research stage and the fourth and fifth in her mind!

(15.03.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at )

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