RogerBW's Blog

Spider Dance, Carole Nelson Douglas 14 August 2017

2004 historical mystery, eighth of Douglas's novels about Irene Adler. Still in New York, Irene Adler looks into the last days of the woman who might have been her mother, and finds that other people are taking a violent interest in the matter.

This book is barely a mystery: there is a plot to be solved, certainly, but it seems peripheral to the main business of historical infodumping and manipulation. The subject of Irene's inquiries is Lola Montez, and while the narrative of Irene's companion Nell Huxleigh is still the main one, there are divagations into Lola's "autobiography"; we also get occasional narrative segments from Sherlock Holmes and Nellie Bly, the latter really reduced to a distraction at this point. The whole thing feels excessively fluffy, with great swathes of quotation and historical detail coupled with surprisingly skimpy descriptions of the non-historical villains.

The investigative spine cracks under the strain: about a third of the way in, Irene suddenly goes in search of a particular bishop, who has never been mentioned before. Presumably there was meant to be a clue, but it was lost in editing somewhere. The investigation is done primarily by Holmes, with Irene tracing Lola Montez, though of course the cases are connected; there's no real resolution, no named villains and nobody brought to justice, even if we do find out more or less why the various strange events were happening. The matter of Irene's mother is not resolved either (and one particular suggestion is simply impossible because Lola had died before the events took place, but nobody notices). A book dealing with Lola Montez and possible lost treasure shouldn't be so dull.

Even the historical material doesn't quite hold together: there's a mention of the forced feeding of suffragist hunger-strikers which didn't happen in England until 1909, and in the USA not until 1917 (and not to a suffragist then), while this book takes place some time around 1890. That may seem like a small thing, but Douglas has effectively asked the reader to go along with the historical setting while she puts her fictionalised characters into it; I can accept Sherlock Holmes working for William Kissam Vanderbilt, because that's part of the conceit of the book, but an anachronism like this spoils my acceptance of the historical backdrop.

On the other hand some things do work well. Holmes is well drawn, as a man with no interest in showmanship who just wants to get the job done. Irene herself is marvellous whenever the narrative gets back to her. Nell's slow-developing romance developes a little bit further, and that works too.

But the book weighs in at over 140,000 words, and that's just too many. Perhaps with more careful editing, and some aggressive trimming, it might have done a better job of conveying the excitement that Douglas clearly feels for the setting and the characters, but alas as it stands I really can't recommend it.

There have been no more novels in the series, though the novella The Private Wife of Sherlock Holmes follows this.

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