‘The Art Of Theft,’ an Overdone Art Heist with Too Many Characters
Has Lady Sherlock jumped the shark? If that sentence means nothing to you, you’re obviously not a fan of the Sherry Thomas mystery series that reimagines Sherlock Holmes as a neuroatypical “fallen woman” who solves crimes with the help of her widowed landlady, Mrs. Watson, a retired actress. Holmes mash-ups are nothing new, but gender-flipping the character while leaving the late-Victorian setting untouched pays dividends in the #MeToo era. Our heroine, Charlotte Holmes, uses a mythical male “consulting detective” as a socially acceptable front for her unladylike crime-solving skills—a premise that allows readers access to the distaff side of Arthur Conan Doyle’s London, where even wealthy women are second-class citizens: denied of basic rights; entirely dependent on their husbands or fathers; and precariously vulnerable to blackmailers, bounders, and fortune hunters.
With its contemporary gender politics against a background of lush historical scene-setting and twisty puzzles the original Holmes might have described as “three-pipe problems,” the series has resonated with readers. The contrast between Charlotte’s brilliant, autistic mind and her awkward emotional naiveté remains compelling. But if you’re not already reading it, you might as well stop reading this right now, because the fourth installment in the series, The Art of Theft, is strictly for (Lady) Sherlockians. Go back to 2016’s A Study in Scarlet Women and proceed from there.
Unfortunately, even fans (among whom I count myself) may have trouble navigating this book’s Byzantine plot and bloated cast of characters. There’s a maharani, a secluded château, a masquerade ball, AND a mysterious Van Dyck painting. I love an art heist; disappointingly, the planned art heist at the center of the narrative turns out to be a red herring, quickly and confusingly discarded. Charlotte is, as always, three steps ahead of the reader (and everyone else in the vicinity), but here her astonishing deductions seem like contrivances designed to leapfrog through an overstuffed narrative.
Ultimately, its own logistics bog down this carefully engineered mystery, heavily indebted to Ocean’s 11. Charlotte spends much of The Art Of Theft hopping back and forth from London to Paris accompanied by a large and incestuous entourage, all toting their own emotional baggage. Thomas, who was an acclaimed romance novelist before branching into historical and young adult fiction, knows how to stoke sexual tension. But the central love story—after attaining a delicious peak in The Hollow of Fear–stalls out here, taking a backseat to the relationships of secondary characters, who multiply with each book. The gymnastics of keeping up the Sherlock ruse is beginning to strain readers’ credulity, and the evil machinations of the Moriarty crime family grow increasingly banal. Even Arthur Conan Doyle realized that a successful formula occasionally needs a splashy, standalone reboot. Where’s a gigantic hound when you need one?
(Berkley, October 15, 2019)