My wife and I listened to “Elementary, She Read” on a five-hour car drive. The audiobook is eight hours twenty-five minutes long, so we ended up spending the evening listening to the rest of the book. It made us laugh several times but it also had us discussing the characters (why we liked them, why they liked each other, what we had in common with them) and admiring how cleverly put together the book is.
I was uncertain about the book because it seemed to be set up to press too many must-read-that buttons: it’s set in a bookshop, it’s set in a SHERLOCK HOLMES bookshop, it’s set in a Sherlock Holmes bookshop IN CAPE COD, it’s set in a Sherlock Holmes bookshop in Cape Cod that is linked to MRS HUDSON’S TEA ROOMS, and the main character is A DIFFICULT BRIT WITH A LIKEABLE, PRETTY, AMERICAN best friend and business partner. Add in the fact that the bookshop has an adorable cat (Moriarty) who likes everyone except our main character and that our main character has a soft love-me-feed-me pet dog and we have a Royal Flush of cuteness. It seemed to me unlikely that, with that much icing on the outside, the fruitcake inside would be worth eating.
I tried the book anyway because I’d read good things about the series on BookLikes and because, if anyone can pull off a cosy mystery that plays on the foibles of the Brits and the Americans, it’s going to be a Canadian writer.
Happily for me and my wife, locked into a long drive across some of England’s least interesting Motorways, “Elementary, She Read” turned out to be pretty much perfect. The fruit cake inside the icing was rich, textured, met all my expectations and added a couple of “Hmm, is that cinnamon or quince giving that extra tang?” moments.
What made it work was that Vicki Delany made the story character-driven. Although there was a Sherlock Holmes-related mystery, involving multiple killings and a suspect-rich environment it seemed to me that the real mystery at the heart of the book was the personality of Gemma Doyle, the owner and manager of “The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop And Emporium”.
Gemma is a wonderful creation, made even more interesting because we learn about her only through her own eyes. Gemma is very bright, very observant but her complete inability to see the world as anything but a frankly-not-that-challenging puzzle, constantly causes offence and conflict through inappropriate remarks and behaviour. Gemma’s logic and determination made “Elementary, She Read” into something much more rigorous in terms of plot than other cosy mysteries I’ve read. Gemma’s lack of social skills and her assumption that it will be obvious to anyone with even half a brain that’s she’s right, at least, it will once she’s taken the time to explain it to them slowly so they can keep up, lands her as the prime suspect in the murder. Watching her dig that hole deeper without realising she’s doing it was a lot of fun.
What made Gemma real to me was her relationship with her best friend the petite, pretty, open and honest Jayne Wilson. Jayne is a woman other women like and nice men fall in love with but who prefers to spend her time with arty bad boys who know how to have fun. Jayne understands Gemma’s strengths and weaknesses and discretely compensates for them, protecting Gemma from her blindspots with regard to personal relationships, her poor ability to assess personal risk and ordering an extra portion to accommodate the fact Gwen never orders food but always eats off Jayne’s plate.
The friendship between these women works well. It makes the plot run smoothly, adds a lot of humour and avoids Gemma coming across as the kind of arrogant ass Sherlock Holmes so often seems to me to be.
The plot is convincing and kept me guessing. The dive into Sherlockian culture was a lot of fun, referencing every Sherlock movie, TV series and pastiche I’ve ever heard of and describing the avidity of the collectors and the playful curiosity of the casual readers with gentle humour.
My wife and I have to make the return journey today. I have the next book in the series “Body In Baker Street” (yes, the bookshop is on 222 Baker Street in West London Cape Cod) ready to play. We’re both looking forward to it.