Humans are suckers for secret societies. Maybe we’re all vaguely paranoid naturally, but we seem fascinated by the possibility that groups of like-minded people, be they good or ill, gather under the cover of darkness and make secretive, potentially dangerous, plans that usually have something to do with world domination. This is probably why so many people still cling to conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and the Freemasons and ancient aliens; it’s why books and movies about the mob are still so popular. Doyle wasn’t immune to this interest either, if you think about it. Mormons appeared at the center of the first ever Holmes story; the Ku Klux Klan feature in “The Five Orange Pips,” which we’ll get to later. Complex criminal organizations make more than a few appearances over the course of the canon as well, from Moriarty and his gang to the sneaky no-goodniks of “The Redheaded League.” In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” Holmes and Watson take on a mystery that has them rubbing shoulders with members of the Italian mob and a Pinkerton detective.
Mrs. Warren, who met Holmes and Watson through a former lodger – Mr. Fairdale Hobbs, whose affair we get no information on whatsoever – who made use of their services the year before, shows up on the doorstep of 221B in need of help. For some reason, Holmes is willing to shove the poor lady off in favor of doing a little filing, which is probably proof that this Holmes is an alien and the real version is being held against his will on the mother ship. Watson doesn’t see anything strange about his roomie wanting to pick up after himself instead of solve a little crime, which is probably proof he’s a podperson, too. At the very least, it’s proof that nobody thinks the landlady’s mystery is going to be that exciting or worth their time, I guess. Luckily for Mrs. Warren, she “had the pertinacity and also the cunning of her sex” and could sway the boys to her side by excessively fluffing up Holmes’ sizable ego.
Men – and egomaniacs – haven’t changed in over a hundred years, just in case anyone wondered. Neither have crafty older ladies.
Holmes shouldn’t have been so quick to wave off his new client, because the case is an interesting one. The Warrens have a new lodger that showed up two weeks earlier, willing to pay double their asking price as long as they basically leave him alone and never enter his room. That sounds suspicious enough, but it gets moreso. The first night, their lodger leaves in the dead of night, returns early in the morning before anyone else is up, and then is never directly seen again. Meals are left outside the man’s door and not taken in until the deliverer has gone back downstairs. All communication between lodger and landlady is managed via notes left on the abandoned trays that potentially point to a less than firm grasp of English and someone going out of their way to disguise their handwriting, requesting things like matches (written as match), soap, and a delivery of The Daily Gazette each morning.
Nothing untoward has happened, but it’s all just a little unnerving to poor Mrs. Warren. Holmes tells her to keep alert and report if anything else happens, and sends her along. She’s got no reason to worry, of course; Sherlock Holmes is on the case. Whatever the case is.
Holmes has a good idea about that, though. What the case is, even if the details are still fuzzy. He’s pretty sure the person in the rented room isn’t the same person that checked into the room and that’s why no one has seen them since checking in. He also surmises that the current lodger is keeping in contact with the original one via messages in the Agony column of the Gazette. After a little back searching, he finds a few messages from the last couple of days that seem to support that theory, which only helps firm up his general hypothesis.
The next morning, Holmes is crowing over a new message in the Gazette when Mrs. Warren breezes in to let them know her husband was kidnapped on the way to work, roughed up a bit, then released by his captors. That adds some definite urgency to solving the mystery, leading Holmes and Watson to the Warrens’ flat to put an end to the whole sordid affair. What follows is a tale of jealousy, mislaid loyalty, obsession, organized crime, secret codes, and, oddly, a love story. We also get the pleasure of Inspector Gregson’s company once again, and get to meet a determined and celebrated Pinkerton agent (celebrated insomuch that Holmes has heard of him and reacts with respect, if not admiration). By the end, it’s likely that no one serves any time, and the actual, true bad guy is dead anyway.
That’s a common thread in quite a few Holmes stories, actually. The perpetrator is frequently an innocent fighting against a corrupt villain – like Jefferson Hope in A Study in Scarlet; like Gennaro Lucca in “The Red Circle.” Oh, there are plenty of actual villains that get their comeuppance at the end of Doyle’s mysteries, and we’ll meet them all eventually: the Milvertons and the Moriartys, and all their compatriots. But there are also the tortured innocents finding their justice as well, and sometimes those stories are the more compelling ones. And Holmes, being more a fan of justice necessarily than law and order, doesn’t seem too concerned with letting the legal system do its job in those cases. Justice has been served – Jefferson Hope went on to face his final judgement, and no one can really blame Mr. Lucca for defending himself. Sometimes, that’s enough.
I’ve created a lot of characters in my time, but few of them are as loud or as persistent as Charlotte. (Her brother, by the way, is pretty loud and annoying, too, and seems to think he has his own story to tell, but let’s not encourage him.) She had a lot to say while I was reading this story, by the way, and most of it was about that quoted line up above, the one about the pertinacity and cunning of her affronted gender. She reminded me that women have means of persuasion beyond their looks and sweet words and some of us aren’t just raised knowing how to flutter our lashes and pat a man’s ego. Her method for convincing her male counterpart of the importance of paying attention would involve a fist to the nose, an arm twisted behind his back, and her Watson sighing and shaking his head. A lot. That is, if Sherlock didn’t block the blows. Her method for reminding Watson – both Watsons, because she has no illusions about her own Watson’s likelihood of occasional, casual misogyny – that a woman’s skill lies beyond just flirtatious cunning – is very similar. Which isn’t to say, by the way, that Charlotte is above resorting to manipulation via her feminine wiles when necessary. She just takes exception to the assumption it’s the only weapon in any woman’s arsenal.
Charlotte has the slightest tendency toward violence when people assume things based entirely on her gender. Lestrade, in her world, is lucky to have never been decked. Yet. Of course, I’m editing/rewriting the first book still, so it might happen before I’m done.
The other part that piqued my detective’s interest was the mention of the Pinkertons. Did you know that the first female detective was hired by the Pinkerton Agency in the 1850s? Kate Warne was part of the team that helped foil the assassination attempt on President-Elect Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. Whether the rumors that she and Allan Pinkerton were involved were true or not, he was obviously very fond of Warne and trusted her instincts and schemes implicitly. Was so fond, in fact, that he was at her bedside when she died, age 38, of pneumonia. She was also buried in the Pinkerton family plot. That’s at least a sign of some fairly significant respect, if you ask me, which is itself a little rare for the time period. Warne was one hell of an impressive woman, and if Charlotte aspires to be anyone (but herself, that is), it’s Kate Warne.
Imagine a young, impressionable Charlotte reading Penny Dreadfuls smuggled over from the states, telling the stories of this remarkable woman who flipped the establishment the proverbial bird at a time when people expected her to be a good little young widow and sit at home in black showing appropriate degrees of grief. Imagine a little girl who just lost her parents clinging to these stories as some kind of anchor in a world that’s suddenly completely upside down. Poor kid never had a chance. Charlotte Holmes, Consulting Detective was a complete inevitability.
The sitting room is a mess of discarded books and papers, clipped articles and hastily scribbled notes. It started as just a haphazard pile on my desk, but the overflow quickly spread to the floor, the couches, the dining table, and both Watson and my chairs. A small sliver of tidiness and order exists within the orbit of Watson’s desk, but the chaos constantly threatens to slip past the invisible boundary he’s strictly enforcing and overtake it.
“What in the name of sanity are you doing, Holmes?” Watson stands in the middle of his kingdom of neatness, hands on his hips as he watches me toss yet another newspaper across the room. “Besides turning the entirety of the house into a scrap heap?”
“Not the entirety,” I say, not looking up from the folder of clippings in my hand. “Just the sitting room. And I’m looking for something that is central to the happy conclusion of a client’s case. I just don’t remember where I filed this particular article.”
“Saying you file anything is a bit of a stretch.”
“I have a system. Just because you don’t understand it…”
“I think you have a strange definition of the word ‘system’ as well as ‘file.’” Watson kneels by the precarious piles of paper nearest his desk and plucks a Penny Dreadful from among the fallen. “’The Adventures of Kate Warne, American Detective.’ Doesn’t sound like your usual reading material, Holmes. Wasn’t aware you were a fan of silly pulp fiction.”
My head jerks up as if attached to a string someone has just tugged. I drop the folder in my hand and get to my feet with a grace compromised by the lack of clear, even floor nearby. “That, my dear doctor, is far from silly or fictional. Kate Warne was a member of the Pinkerton Agency. The first female detective in the history of the occupation, in fact. She helped prevent the first assassination attempt on Mr. Lincoln, before he took office.”
Watson opens the old, yellowed book and flips through its dog-eared pages, a chuckle rumbling his chest. “How did she do that? Flutter her eyes at the assassin until he lowered his gun?”
“The same way I would have, thank you kindly. With her wits.” I climb over and through a veritable mountain range of paper stacks to reach the doctor and attempt to snatch the book from him. He, having a few inches on me, adeptly keeps it just out of my reach. “She conceived the plan to switch his route, thus avoiding the killers waiting to ambush him. And sat up to watch him, personally, to ensure his continued safety.”
“Impressive. And I wouldn’t dare place a single doubt to your wits, of course. Physical intervention, however, is a bit beyond the female of the species, I think.”
One eyebrow creeps up toward my hairline, hefted inch by inch with my annoyance. “We’re not all weak little princesses, you know. Some of us have been instructed in the physical arts.”
“Yes, Holmes, I’m sure some of you have.” Watson dangles the book just beyond my arm’s reach, a smug smile the centerpiece of his overall amused expression. “Whether you have, however..”
I stop reaching for the book. A deep pout pushes out my bottom lip. I settle one of my hands on the elbow of the arm not stretched over his head. “It’s not very nice to tease, you know.”
Watson blinks. There is a hint of suspicion lingering in his eyes. He’s not a dumb man, the good doctor. He’s cautious. He should be. “It’s done out of affection,” he says, though he keeps the book overhead. “Friends do such things.”
“Of course.” I smile, the sweetest, simplest smile in my arsenal. My other hand remains at my side, in complete view. I’m hoping he remains too distracted to care what my hand is doing. My attention is, by all appearances, on him. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I watch the hand held aloft. “Still, it’s very mean to use a woman’s weakness against her.”
“Now, Holmes. I never said you were weak.” His outstretched arm dips at the elbow. My hand moves to settle on his chest, playing with the collar of his shirt. “I…well, I was only…” His cheeks pinken. I wonder what thoughts must be going through his mind to bring that on. Surely a flirtatious young woman isn’t enough to make a doctor flush that way.
I lean in, stretch up onto my toes, invade his personal space as fully as I can manage. I note with smug delight that he doesn’t try to step away. “Only what?” My lips are only a scant inch away from his. My breath fans the fine hairs of his mustache with each word, I’m so close. If I wasn’t so keen on proving a point, this might be a dangerous predicament. There is an awful lot of illogical temptation to be found this close to John Watson’s lips.
“I suppose I just wanted to see what the unflappable Charlotte Holmes looks like at a disadvantage.”
“Well,” I say, my smile slow and close enough to his own he likely feels the minute movements of muscle needed to accomplish it, “I think, my dear doctor, that you may have to wait a bit longer for the sight of that.” As punches to the solar plexus go, the one I land is mild. Barely enough to wind a man, meant only to cause the instinctual muscle tensing that will bring his hovering hand close enough that I can liberate my publication and demonstrate the flaws in his argument. However, I’ve miscalculated slightly. I misjudge the distance between him and the desk chair behind him, as well as the unequal distribution of weight between his good leg and his bad one. The punch causes him to stumble, then to fall against the chair, then to fall over it. While attempting to catch his hand to arrest his descent, I accidentally catch him in the eye. He goes down, grabbing my arm and taking me with him.
We land in a familiar tangle of limbs, our positions reversed so that he’s the one doing the pinning this time. For a long moment, we lay there, staring at each other. Once again, I’m tormented by the proximity of those lips, this time without the benefit of a point in need of proving. I’m a breath away from giving into that temptation when Watson pulls back, taking those lips out of reach.
“It’s not nice to use a man’s weaknesses against him,” he says, his hands careful to remain on the floor. I notice he’s putting quite a bit of weight on them, in fact, almost as if he wants to make sure they remain there. “Point made, however.” He pushes himself off and then up, a hand offered down to me once he’s securely on his feet again. When I am similarly situated, he offers the Penny Dreadful to me as well. “Happy reading about Miss Warne, Holmes. I think I’ll turn in for the night.”
As Watson’s footsteps recede, I stare at the book in my hand. “How did you manage men? I’m personally at a loss.”
Of course, the book doesn’t answer.
Loose threads from this story: The affair of Fairdale Hobbs; the Long Island cave case.