The House at Baker Street

The House at Baker Street

Title: The House at Baker Street

Author: Michelle Birkby

Review by Jade Craddock

Whether on the page or screen we all have some familiarity with Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson. We’ve peered into their rooms in 221b Baker Street, seen them at work and followed them as they use their genius and guile to apprehend perpetrators and solve mysteries.

Yet whilst the spotlight shines on Holmes and Watson the same can’t be said for landlady Mrs Hudson, or even Watson’s wife, Mary. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for not noticing them at all, or disregarding their presence as mere trifling. After all they are but pawns in Holmes and Watson’s story. On the periphery, in the background, as Holmes and Watson go about the significant work, solving crimes, catching murderers, the stuff that stories are made of.

Author Michelle Birkby herself admits to never having thought about Mrs Hudson before, until rereading The Empty House for the twentieth time and suddenly noticing her. She had been there all along but for Birkby it was ‘as if a blurred figure in the background suddenly came into focus’. And it is the emergence of Mrs Hudson that paves the way for her novel The House at Baker Street, with its sharp tagline: ‘Behind every great detective, stands a great woman.’ For Birkby’s rediscovery of Mrs Hudson led to an exciting reevaluation of character, in which Mrs Hudson steps into the role of a great woman.

Perceptive

Housekeeper she may be, and a loyal and discerning one at that, but living in the same house as Sherlock Holmes, she is privy to, albeit by some indiscriminate eavesdropping via an air duct in her given milieu – the kitchen, Sherlock’s world, the clients who frequent his rooms with puzzling requests and notably the musings of the man himself. While she listens and learns, she is in her own right an intelligent and perceptive woman. She is no female Sherlock, he is after all a self-confessed anomaly, but nor is she an unthinking woman.

So it is that when Sherlock rather abruptly dismisses a potential client, Laura Shirley, who has approached the detective after being blackmailed, Mrs Hudson finds herself stepping in. But she is not alone, for Birkby explains just as ‘Sherlock had his Watson, Mrs Hudson could have her Watson too.’ That is Mary Watson. And the two women set to work the case of Laura Shirley’s blackmail, leading them into the iniquitous White Chapel, still reeling from Jack the Ripper, and into a wider web of bribery and villainy. And a showdown with a foe who had expected the great Sherlock Holmes, not two ignorant women! But Mrs Hudson and Mary prove far from ignorant. They are women finally getting the chance to show their true potential.

Feminist spirit

Birkby’s novel is a fascinating reimagining of life inside 221B Baker Street. We are still at the same address, Sherlock Holmes is still the detective non-pareil, but as if on a film set, the camera pans down from Holmes’ rooms on the upper floor to Mrs Hudson’s environs below. It is Sherlock’s world that now exists on the periphery, with Holmes, like Mrs Hudson in his stories making fleeting appearances, reduced to the sound of pacing in his room, whilst Mrs Hudson’s world is suddenly brought into focus.

This is a Sherlock Holmes story that places women at its centre, not only as victims, but as heroines, thinkers and rogues. Victorian gender roles are re-examined and critiqued, as are attitudes towards women, and the dominance of male narratives. And whilst there’s a clear feminist spirit to the whole, there’s also a buoyancy and vibrancy to the story that prevents it from becoming over-politicised.

Throw in the cast of irregulars – think Peter Pan’s Lost Boys led by a charming Artful Dodger-type stray – and Birkby creates an energetic and intriguing narrative, with two compelling female characters at its centre. As the first in a potential series, the novel hints at much more to come, and just as Holmes and Watson have become embedded in our cultural psyche, it may just be time for Mrs Hudson and Mary to do so too. At the very least, Birkby ensures that the next time we see Mrs Hudson or Mary in the shadows, we aren’t so quick to dismiss them.

Review by Jade Craddock

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