Title: My Dear Watson
Author: L.A. Fields
Publisher: Lethe Press
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
From the Publisher:
One of the most famous partnerships in literature yields, over time, to a peculiar romantic triangle. Sherlock Holmes. Dr. John Watson. And the good doctor’s second wife, whom Doyle never named. In L A Fields’s novel, Mrs. Watson is a clever woman who realizes, through examining all the prior cases her husband shared with the world’s greatest consulting detective, that the two men shared more than adventures: they were lovers, as well. In 1919, after the pair has retired, Mrs. Watson invites Holmes to her home to meet him face to face. Thus begins a recounting of a peculiar affair between extraordinary men.
“You are such a unique person,” Holmes says poisonously. “What a shame that history will most likely never remember your name.”
The question Mrs. Watson faces: Did Holmes simply take advantage of her husband’s loyalty and love, or did the detective return those feelings? And what to do now that the pair are no longer living together at Baker Street and Watson has other claims on his affections? My Dear Watson offers readers a romance that requires as much reasoning to puzzle out as it does passion. Mrs. Watson proves a worthy opponent—in intellect, in guile, in conviction—for the great detective.
Wow. This is not what I expected. I guess, primed as I was with all the coy faux-gay banter in the marvelous Brit TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I was sort of imagining that this would be a period gay romance spinning off on Conan Doyle’s famous detective novels. Indeed, author L.A. Fields describes the book on her Goodreads page as “a queer Sherlock Holmes pastiche.”
Fields underestimates the gravitas of her work. Pastiche implies something patched together, even frivolous. My Dear Watson is neither of those things. It is a serious, fascinating book. It is also a deeply unhappy book which, I confess, I had some trouble reading. I wanted the romantic pastiche described in the blurb.
I’ve read quite a lot of “historical” gay romances, many of them excellent both in writing quality and in the creation of an authentic setting and tone. As a specialist in nineteenth-century culture, I’ve read a lot of literature of the period, including most of the Sherlock Holmes books (although that was, admittedly, long ago). I was expecting a Sherlock-type story, but placed in Conan Doyle’s original period, all sly winks and bedroom hijinks in between the mysteries.
Instead, Fields has given what is almost a psychological analysis of a haunted and ultimately failed love affair between the emotionally crippled Holmes and a bisexual Watson. To make it more unnerving (and, yes, brilliant), the narrator throughout is Dr. Watson’s second wife, and she writes the story in her own words, fully aware of the nature of her husband’s longtime relationship with the famous detective. She writes lovingly of her husband, and with a gimlet eye cast on all of the inexcusable failings (as well as the brilliance) of Holmes, whom she likes not at all.
The setting is a dinner at the Watson home a year after the end of World War I. Holmes and Watson both in their mid-sixties, have not seen each other in years. The much younger Mrs. Watson, married to the doctor for some fifteen years, knows that both men have been scarred by the Great War (as has everyone in England, including Mrs. Watson herself). Accordingly, she has negotiated this dinner for her beloved husband in spite of her misgivings about meeting the man who corrupted and betrayed the man she loves.
Mrs. Watson takes us through the entire history of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, weaving their broken love story into the detective cases that Watson turned into vastly popular crime novels. Fields does this believably and with an uncanny sense of having actually had access to hitherto-unknown notes or diaries of Dr. Watson. She has created a plausible scenario presenting Holmes as an unrepentant homosexual and Watson as a bisexual, in an era when such behavior could land you in prison and ruin your life. Indeed, the Oscar Wilde scandal and trial appears as a key moment in the men’s story, and becomes a motivating factor in Holmes’s own behavior.
Ultimately (and this is no spoiler, because we know from the beginning), Watson’s heterosexual nature triumphs because of Holmes’s inability to act, well, human. It is an eerily vivid portrait of a great love story gone bad, in which homosexuality remains an unhappy affliction that loses out to the moral and social comforts of marriage.
Because I am a child of Stonewall, you can see why I found this book as dispiriting as it was impressive. It made me ineffably sad, even as Fields moved me with her skill and her research. Equally powerful is her grasp of language that shifts from Victorian to late 1910s without distracting the reader or ruining the sense of reality that pervades her text and makes it feel, well, true.
I couldn’t, in the end, give My Dear Watson five stars, purely because of the discomfort it caused me. The “Dear Watson” in the title, you see, is not Holmes’s Watson, the man he so loved; but the narrator’s husband, the man she won in the end.
I will concede that there is, at the very end, an exquisite detail that made me feel much better, even as it moved me to tears. Ms. Fields should be very proud, in spite of making me unhappy.
This review is based on a copy purchased by the reviewer independent of any review copies offered.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
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