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Review: A Study in Velvet and Leather by K. Caine

The second volume in Improbable Press’s 221b Series (the first was my own A Dream to Build A Kiss On) is the splended A Study in Velvet and Leather, due for release on 1 December 2018. An advance review copy was coaxed into my greedy little fingers, though, and promptly gobbled up.

K. Caine may have written a female Sherlock and male John in a canon-era setting, but  her tale departs wonderfully far from a traditional telling of thie enduring pair.

John Watson, invalided war doctor, is gay. It’s a surprise to find Stamford’s flat-hunting friend is a woman, but she’s an unusual one. Sherlock is a consulting detective, dressing most often in men’s attire and (we later learn) a reader of Sappho. They move into Baker Street together.

John narrates their life together: his increasing involvement in Sherlock’s cases and John recovers his health, along with his fascination for Sherlock’s methods and curiosity about so much that remains secret and unsaid about Sherlock’s life. John also records his bemused yet growing devotion to his astonishing flatmate, recording but not always understanding Sherlock’s response to him.

But as John develops his surprised and secret feelings for this remarkable woman, an undercurrent from Sherlock’s unspoken private life breaks the surface. The case involves “the well known adventuress” Irene Adler, a compromising photograph, and a private club. The meaning of velvet, leather and many of Sherlock’s mysteries will come to light.

One of the many glories of this book – which include engaging characters, the gorgeous flow of the writing and an exploration of the fluidity than can exist in gender and sexuality – is how seamlessly K. Caine uses the 221b ficlet format to tell a single story.

The 16 chapters of the book are subtly separated into 221-word sections, the last word of each section beginning with ‘b’.  This meets the rules of a 221b ficlet, yet is so smoothly done that the reader may not notice it, as the story’s rhythm moves so gracefully.

A Study in Velvet and Leather is one of those delicious books where you can’t decide whether to gulp it down in one go, or sip it slowly to make it last.

I’ve never been a sipper, though – and I was so involved in Sherlock and John’s adventures and feelings, so invested in them too – that I gulped that story down in a few hours one Saturday. The conclusion was both fantastically satisfying and left me yearning for more of these incarnations of Holmes and Watson.

A fabulous bonus to the whole story is the series of Appendices, in the form of notes between the two. I seriuosly can’t get enough of this fluid John and Sherlock. Additionally, the artwork by Avid Branks is sparing and elegant, and contains little clues of its own .

Which makes it doubly awesome that K. Caine is now writing another Improbable Press book with them, Conductivity.

I can’t wait.

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Review: My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy

In 1988,  author Rohase Piercy did something remarkable and controversial.

She published a book in which Dr John Watson was in love with Sherlock Holmes. (Whether Holmes reciprocates is the grand question of much of the rest of the book.)

Boy, did some people find that idea challenging. The Daily Mail seemed to think it would cause the fall of England, though the Guardian responded with bemused good humour.

Many readers who had thought about the queer possibilities of this literary partnership were delighted.

The book

A preface by Dr Watson is followed by part one, ‘A Discreet Investigation’, in which a case leads Holmes and Watson to the demi monde, a tangled case of blackmail and the question of whether Sherlock Holmes has noticed that his client and her intimate friend are in fact a lesbian couple.

Told canonically from Watson’s point of view, Watson’s unrequited love for Holmes and attempts to deal with his unrequited affections become central. Does Holmes know of Watson’s dangerous leanings, or to whom they are directed? Will Watson’s ‘indiscretions’, the way in which he tries to manage his hopeless desire, destroy their friendship?  Or will Watson find a way to live with his nature while protecting both himself and Sherlock Holmes’s reputation?

Watson’s resolution to this crisis with Mary Morstan (who has secrets of her own) isn’t the end of the matter, however. The second half of My Dearest Holmes, ‘The Final Problem’, deals with the aftermath of Watson’s solution, as well as the events at the Reichenbach Falls and ‘The Adventure of The Empty House’. It’s a far cry from the stories Watson wrote for The Strand, which are necessarily inaccurate to protect their original clients as well as Watson’s deeply troubled heart.

30th Anniversary Edition

2018 marks 30 years since My Dearest Holmes caused such consternation, and so Rohase Piercy has published an anniversary edition. The new edition is framed with a foreword by Charlie Raven, exploring the changes in attitude to LGBTQ relationships in the intervening 30 years, and a final essay by Piercy – “Sherlock Holmes: a Decadent Detective?” – on the gothic and decadent origins of the character.

This reprint of My Dearest Holmes comes into a world where queer readings of Holmes and Watson are not so rare – Improbable Press even specialises in Holmes♥Watson fiction!

How does it stand up, 30 years later?

The Review

Reader, it is wonderful. An angst-fest for sure, but splendidly paced, and full of teasing moments. Some canon-esque humour gets in there, and some entertaining reworkings of the stories we know, shifted to become the history of “what really happened” in this telling.

Holmes is as ineffable as ever, often fond of his friend, sometimes unkind, and a stickler for not getting sentimental about things. Along with John Watson, you can’t tell how Sherlock really feels about his friend.  What, if anything, does he feel, and what might he be repressing? How much does his use of the cocaine bottle relate to everything he never says?

Watson’s inner turmoil is compassionately explored, as is the world under the surface of respectable London, with loves and liaisons not accepted by the mainstream but definitely humming away in the shadows.

There are cases of course (where Holmes is, there too are puzzles) but the true, unexpressed feelings between these two great friends and colleagues is the largest puzzle of all, and it’s only resolved in the last few chapters.

Piercy’s writing, like the best new Holmesian adventures, mimics the tone of Conan Doyle without becoming clumsy or cliched. My Dearest Holmes has a style reminiscent of Doyle and is easy to read in that regard.

Which is great, because I gulped it all down. There’s a lot of hurt before we get any comfort at all, but it’s well told and not without lighter, warmer moments.  And while subtle in its execution, the payoff is worth the wait.

Buy My Dearest Holmes

More about Rohase Piercy