Like many people, I am a long-standing fan of Sherlock Holmes, and the world of 221b Baker Street, having read all of Conan Doyle’s novels, some of the many spin-offs, watched the films and TV series. When this arrived to review, I wasn’t sure whether there was anything left to say about the phenomenon. Luckily for us, there is something new to say.
Michelle Birkby is also a long-standing fan of the phenomenon, and was particularly intrigued about the character of Mrs Hudson, Holmes’s housekeeper. In both this novel, and her first one; Mrs Hudson, and John Watson’s wife Mary, are brought out of the shadows into the forefront of the novels. In the original books, Mrs Hudson is a shadowy figure, dressed in black, seen showing visitors to Holmes’s rooms, carrying trays and occasionally assisting Holmes in his investigations. The lack of information in the originals, about her life, other than she is a reasonably well off widow, allows Michelle to invent a past and present for her. Mrs Hudson is now the mother of a son, who died as a child, which is integral to the plot. In the first novel, Mrs Hudson and Mary team up as amateur detectives, whose first case leads them into danger.
This second book in the series sees them investigating two cases. Mrs Hudson is rushed to hospital with nasty pains, and is admitted to a hospital ward, where there is an abnormally high death rate. None of the women in the ward are what they seem, from the patients to the nursing staff. The ward is presided over by the mysterious Sister Ruth Bey, who is the night Sister. She spends all of her time at her desk, obsessively writing in a logbook, refusing to go near the patients. Mrs Hudson is driven to investigate, when she witnesses one of the deaths taking place, and discovers that it was murder. Mary’s case involves the “pale boys”, who may or may not be real. The boys are street children, either snatched from the street, from orphanages, or trained to kill. The two investigations run in tandem, before converging halfway through the novel. I found the plot interesting and different, although I was irritated by the numerous references to the events of the earlier novel, which I’ve not read.
I found the characters to be well developed, with distinct personalities of their own. I particularly liked the depiction of Mrs Hudson, who narrates the novel, along with Mary Watson. The women patients and nurses are also fully formed and distinct from each other: Emma, Betty, Eleanor, Flo Bryson, Miranda Logan, and all have secrets they wish to hide. Sherlock Holmes, John Watson and Lestrade all make appearances, but refreshingly are in the background, offering advice when asked. The novel explores the themes of, the deaths of children, insanity, women’s’ lives, the experience of being ill, poverty and childhood.
I found it an enjoyable read, and liked the refreshing take on the Holmes phenomenon. I was unaware of the existence of either book, until this arrived, and was sufficiently intrigued by the references to the events of the earlier novel, to buy a copy, to read later. However I didn’t find that it affected my reading or enjoyment of the book, if like me, you have not read the first one. It would be useful to have some knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes stories, as it makes this book more enjoyable, although again it is not essential to have done so.