Nov 29, 2011

Good Night, Mr Holmes by Carole Nelson Douglas

Good Night, Mr Holmes by Carole Nelson Douglas

Good Night, Mr Holmes is the first in a series of mysteries chronicling the adventures of Irene Adler, opera singer and amateur sleuth. As Sherlock Holmes fans will know, Irene Adler is the woman who outwits Holmes in the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. I expected Good Night, Mr Holmes to be a retelling of this story from Irene’s perspective, but in fact Carole Nelson Douglas begins her novel many years before the incident with the King of Bohemia. There are references to other stories in the Holmes canon (and even an appearance by Jefferson Hope from “A Study in Scarlet”), but for a great part of the novel Holmes is just a secondary figure of limited importance: more than anything else, this is Irene Adler’s show.

One of the most interesting things about Good Night, Mr Holmes is that Nelson Douglas mirrors the narrative structure of the Sherlock Holmes stories: enter Miss Penelope Huxleigh, who is Watson to Irene Adler’s Holmes. Miss Huxleigh is a parson’s daughter who falls on bad times, and who is saved from homelessness and destitution by Irene. From then on, the two live together and collaborate on the occasional investigation. Miss Huxleigh is very prim and proper and easily scandalised – an unlikely match for the very unconventional Irene Adler, but in fact the two get along famously. What Caroline Nelson Douglas does with the narration reminded me a little of the Drusilla Clack section in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Penelope is a far more likeable narrator, of course, but there’s plenty of humour in the clash between her values and Adler’s free-spirited existence.

As Penelope and Irene grow closer, they begin to realise that they’re far less different than they’d have imagined. The main difference between them is that Penelope, like most of her contemporaries, is extremely concerned with appearances, while Irene barely spares a thought for what others think of her. Of course, this indifference is a luxury that most Victorian women would not have been able to afford, but Irene Adler is in a position that makes it possible.

There’s some social commentary in Good Night, Mr Holmes, but this is more of a fun romp than a ponderous novel. However, I have to say I was charmed by its implied feminism – Irene may not spent a lot of time protesting against social constraints, but the deep conviction that women are human beings and shouldn’t settle for being treated as anything less is implicit to her whole life. One aspect of the novel that gave me pause was Caroline Nelson Douglas’s handling of the concept of “adventuress” – a term Holmes uses to describe Irene Adler, and which has clear connotations of sexual disreputableness. This Irene Adler is in fact as chaste as any Victorian woman was expected to be. My own preference would be for a more in-depth questioning of the double standards that make Holmes’ accusation so damaging, but I know from my readings about Victorian feminism that it was in fact often accompanied by a rigid attitude towards sexuality. Irene Adler’s convictions, then, do fit the profile of heroine Nelson Douglas has created.

Good Night, Mr Holmes takes place over a relatively long period of time, and I did feel that the first half of the novel meandered a little bit. But I was too busy enjoying the humour, the characters, the period atmosphere, and the cameos by the likes of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde to mind too much. Mary Russell will probably always be my favourite Holmes-inspired heroine, but Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler and Miss Huxleigh are certainly worth getting to know.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

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23 comments:

  1. I like that premise of basing a series around the woman who outwitted Holmes. I also love the literary references and the cameos. Throw in a bit of humor and a touch of feminism and it sounds like a winner.

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  2. Just found this wonderful bookish place! I am a librarian and I know many folk who would love this book.

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  3. I had never heard of this book, but you certainly make a good case for it! It sounds like it would be a lovely read to go alongside some of the Sherlock Holmes books, and I need to watch out for it. Great thoughts on this one today. Thanks for sharing them!

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  4. This sounds like a whole lot of fun! I didn't think I would like mystery novels inspired by other mystery novels, but I've really enjoyed the Mary Russell books, so I think I was wrong about my bias.

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  5. Nice review, Ana! Interesting addition to the Irene Adler canon. I also love the fact that Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde make an appearance in the book. Love Oscar Wilde!

    Have you seen the movie 'Sherlock Holmes' which had Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler?

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  6. I've yet to read any Sherlock Holmes - I wonder if I should before reading this.

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  7. I haven't heard of this one but I like the sound of it. I really like the idea of a woman outwitting Holmes too!

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  8. I've been wanting to crack open my Sherlock Holmes library at home and now this one sounds even better. I like that there are female characters taking the lead in this one!

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  9. Beth F: It really was a winner for me! The series has been around for a while, so there's a big back catalogue to explore. Can't wait to read the next one.

    Cait O'Connor: I'm very happy to have indirectly helped them discover it, then!

    Zibilee: Yes, it's a perfect companion to the original stories :)

    Rebecca H: I think Mary Russell fans are likely to enjoy this also!

    Vishy: I wonder what devoted Wilde fans would think of the cameo, since the narrator, Ms Huxleigh, doesn't think that much of him. But that suited the way she was characterised pretty well. I haven't watched the movie yet, but I watched the BBC series that came out the same year and which will also have Irene Adler in season two. Between that and this book, I'm certainly in the mood for more Holmes stories!

    Kathy: I think the book can be enjoyed by readers who haven't read the stories, but the more you know the original the more fun all the allusions will be. I read the story "A Scandal in Bohemia" just before this and I think it made me appreciate it more.

    Amy: Yes! And I love that it actually happens in Conan Doyle's version.

    Kathleen: I really loved that as well :)

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  10. I really have to read more Holmes. I wouldn't feel right starting a series like this without reading more of the "originals" (so to speak).

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  11. I really want to read this series but my library doesn't have any of them. :(

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  12. Good review, this book sounds good. I think I need to read more of Sherlock Holmes...have only read A Study in Scarlet.

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  13. You and I have an interesting synchronicity this week with the Sherlock Holmes fan fiction! I will have to run right out and find this one.

    You might also be interested in the short story collection entitled the Improbably Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, continued adventures by modern authors.

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  14. You know how I felt about The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but this one sounds right up my alley.

    I think it's funny how people cling to Irene Adler and give it much more importance that I think Conan Doyle intended. But the idea of a bit of romance in Holmes' life is so attracted. And him being outwitted by that woman even more. I think I'd very much like a novel from her perspective :)

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  15. Trisha: It wasn't a problem for me, but to each their own of course!

    Kailana: :( I was lucky to find a cheap used copy of this one, but mine doesn't have them either, which will delay me reading the rest of the series.

    Jessica: I'm a Holmes newbie myself - I've read all the novels, but only a handful of scattered short stories. So far, The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favourite.

    Jeanne: Oh, that sounds like a great collection. Thanks for the tip!

    Alex: I hope you have more luck with this one! And yes, that is interesting. The fun thing about reader response is that we're free to run with whichever ideas or characters stand out to us regardless of authorial intent. Irene Adler's popularity is a great example of that.

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  16. I've been wondering if I'd like this, and reading your post makes me think I would. Thanks! I'm new to the Holmes canon, but I love the Mary Russell series, and the one for young people about Enola Holmes. I'm just reading the last one now, but have written about the first five on my blog. She is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft.

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  17. A Sherlock Holmes spin-off with feminist elements? This book sounds right up my alley. I'm particularly interested in the relationship between Irene and Penelope. Thanks for reviewing this book. I wouldn't have heard about it otherwise. :)

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  18. Nan: I need to try the Enola Holmes series! I've read a few reviews before and it does sound excellent :)

    Darlyn: I really loved the relationship between the two of them. I hope you do too!

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  19. Irene Adler as the main character, huh? Either I'll love it or it'll ruin the picture I have of her. Either way, I still have to read it.

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  20. A Scandal in Bohemia has always been one of my favorite of Holmes cases, mainly because of Irene Adler. That and she's about the best female character (that I've read so far) that Doyle wrote.

    This reminds me I need to read the second half of my complete collection of Sherlock Holmes. I think I'll be throwing this book in, if I can get my hands on a copy!

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  21. Carol: I hope it's the former rather than the latter!

    Heather: Yes! I'm a Conan Doyle newbie but can't imagine anyone ever topping Irene Adler. I do own a lovely Complete Sherlock Holmes edition, though, so I just might dip into it when I go home next week.

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  22. Ahaha this exists, yay *claps*. Thanks for spotlighting this book.

    I am always dubious of the Mary Russell series, because as I may perhaps have mentioned once of twice I am very Watson/Holmes orientated and Mary is going to end up with Holmes...I don't want to end up being all 'ugh, what' because she sounds like an awesome character. Maybe if I read it alongside Sherlcok fanfic to remind myself of the plausibility of many universes?

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  23. Jodie: My one issue with the Mary Russell series is that I just don't feel the romance at all. So far it hasn't spoiled my enjoyment of the books, though, as there's plenty to enjoy besides that. I do like your solution!

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