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Image manip of Holmes and Watson kissing courtesy of Rose at itsacrimescene.

Seriously, though.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson had far more adventures than those published during their lifetimes. To protect clients (and others) involved in controversial practices, Dr. Watson requested that certain of his manuscripts remain unpublished until all parties involved were deceased, or until society had advanced its understanding of 'inversion' (a Victorian catch-all term for those with any gender or sexuality deviating from a binary heterosexual rubric) sufficiently that the well-being of those involved would not be jeopardized. This is the premise behind A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, and, while this is not the first time fanfiction has set itself up to be integrated into the canon in this way, it remains an effective and believable concept.

Despite what I expected, most of the stories were not explicitly Holmes/Watson, at all. They did all involve clients who were in some way "inverts" (the concept of homosexuality as we know it did not exist in the 1890s, remember), and, in many of the stories, it is heavily implied (this is Victorian implied, mind, which means it's all but confirmed) that Holmes is gay, but Watson is totally oblivious. But what is most important is this: despite the orientations of the main characters, they remain sympathetic to those living on the then-criminal edges of society, and realize that there is no justice in stigmatizing those who fall outside of gender and sexuality norms. It is a victimless crime. In that, queer readers and their allies may find solace, and it casts Holmes and Watson as men far ahead of their time.

There is one story in which Watson kisses Holmes, but the execution seems rather contrived, following the narrative: "I'll kiss him to see if he's gay and if he'll react, purely as an experiment; oh but wait, I'm really enjoying this". This is a shame, because it is a rushed premise in an otherwise fluid story. I do not doubt this has happened throughout the course of human history, but I've seen it done so many times as a quick way to get two characters together that my standards of execution are higher. One story ends with the soft implication they end up together, and another deals (far more organically, and this is one of my favorites in the collection) with Watson's burgeoning jealousy and self-realization.

Also interesting is that the book isn't at all smutty. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that equates alternative sexualities with porn, with no room for the chaste sweetness seen with heterosexual portrayals. I dearly love me some smut, but I acknowledge the need for stories that focus purely on the emotional aspect, to cater to all audiences. We see this in fanfiction, and there is a recent movement in commercial fiction in this direction, but for quite a while beforehand stories dealing with homosexuality, bisexuality, etc, was ghettoized as pornography, almost synonymous--and this further restricted access of these stories to young readers. (I argue that violence is more disturbing than sex, but that is another essay.) This past sectioning also made homosexual relationships seem to be purely carnal, especially in the public mind. I am heartened to see a diversification in the way the subject is portrayed, one that reflects the true diversity of experience.

Most of the stories are written in imitation of Doyle's style, with Watson narrating. One story is third-person limited Lestrade, with Holmes acting only in periphery, one story is Holmes first person, and another is narrated by a serial killer who knew Doyle, sort of a meta-take on the franchise.

The stories are of mixed quality. I especially enjoyed "The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon" by Katie Raynes and "The Well-Educated Young Man" by William P. Coleman. These are the standout pieces in this collection, and are by far the best in terms of characterization and plot. "The Adventure of the Unidentified Flying Object" is the weakest in the collection, especially given that it is implied that Moriarty is behind the mystery and the premise is as thoroughly contrived, illogical, and ineffective as putting drug-crazed snakes on a plane to assassinate one witness. If Moriarty wanted a teahouse raided, he would have found a far more effective and subtle way to assure it would have happened. But I digress. I also enjoyed "The Adventure of the Hidden Lane" and "The Adventure of the Posey Ring" very well-written. The former, especially, ends on a painful and poignant note of lost potential, largely because of Holmes' pathological eccentricities. It is a realistic, yet painful, look at one interpretation of Holmes' psychology. "Whom God Destroys" is an interesting addition to the anthology, peripherally related to the Holmes canon through the narrator's position as Doyle's secretary. As a serial killer's narrative it falls flat; there is promise in this story of a deranged young man driven by jealousy and delusion, but the execution lacks the charm of other similar stories, and relies too heavily on weak pop psychology.

I did catch a few typos in the book, more than one would find in the average commercial publication. The writing style and dialogue is clearly modeled on Doyle's, for better and worse, and as a stylistic approach this makes sense given that the authors intended these stories to be 'lost papers', as it were.

Overall, this is a fun little volume, not cheap (it does come from a small press, probably limited print runs if they don't do POD), but worth a look if you would like to see some queer elements fused into the classic Doyle style. It is not perfect, and the stories vary widely in quality, but there is a good, cozy night's reading to be had. Do not expect sweeping epics surrounding Holmes/Watson; the few elements of that there are here are largely peripheral or within the context of the larger mystery. Many of the stories show clear research into Victorian sexual ideology and terminology, and there is, of course, a cameo by that most famous of Victorian inverts, Oscar Wilde. I can read fanfiction of comparable quality for free, even in the Doyle style, but I don't mind paying to support authors putting effort into editing and compiling a print anthology.
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July 2012

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