The Janet Watson Chronicles
by Claire O'Dell
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. A Study in Honor / 2. The Hound of Justice (July 30, 2019)
There have been many variations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character and stories over the years. Some are reverential updates, some comedic parodies. This is not the first to gender flip one or both of the main characters. It might not even be the first to present Watson as the main protagonist, because there have to be many I haven't read, or seen in the case of filmed versions. In Claire O'Dell's A Study in Honor, both Holmes and Watson are Black women. Dr. Janet Watson is a surgeon who gave up a lucrative career to volunteer for military duty during the Second American Civil War against the New Confederacy. It is never specified what year it is, but my guess is no more than twenty years into the future, possibly less. Watson has memories of, and makes occasional comments about, our current political situation. Sara Holmes is a mysterious covert agent, but for what governmental or military agency is unclear. She has many contacts, can improvise personas and fake IDs at will, and also has a cadre of assistants to help when her activities are less than legitimately authorized. She is obviously very intelligent, but her deductive powers derive not just from mental acuity and attention to detail as with Sherlock. She also has neural implants to access data in real time.
Dr. Watson was injured while trying to protect her patients during a New Confederacy attack on the US base in Alton, Illinois. Her left forearm (the cover image is incorrect) has been amputated below the elbow, replaced with a prosthetic, but not a new one. Her commanding officer repurposed a used device as a stop-gap until the Army could replace it with a new one. She is honorably discharged, returning to DC, not only because that was where she lived before her service, but also because she will be closer to the main Veterans Affairs offices and medical facilities. Unfortunately, the war economy has ravaged the budget, and it may be a year or more before her prosthetic can be replaced. As a surgeon, she needs a state of the art device to resume that work, but she is forced to take a menial medical technician position at the VA. Well, not exactly forced. A friend of hers, another veteran, introduces her to Sara Holmes, who is looking for someone to share an apartment, and Sara suggests she take the VA position. That surprises Watson, since she had just applied for it, along with several other options, so how could Holmes know about it? That's just the first inkling she gets that Sara is more than she seems. On the surface, Sara Holmes is a confident, erudite, beautiful Black woman, and most likely very rich. Why does she want Watson to live with her, and why is the rent for her Georgetown apartments much less expensive than Watson would have assumed?
Portions of the plot, and especially the ultimate villain of the mystery Watson and Holmes try to unravel, are a bit cliché. That is the only negative comment I have. I rated it 5 stars on Goodreads, but a more accurate score would be closer to 4.5, but only because of those cliché elements. Watson narrates her own story, a compelling mix of fierce pride in her abilities and her heritage, mixed with bitter resentment and anger towards a system that doesn't seem to care about honoring her service. And not just hers. She witnesses how many of the other veterans are treated (read, mistreated), and while she gets generally good marks for her efficiency on the job, she also alienates some of her superiors with suggestions of how things could be better. After several incidents which may or may not be related, Watson is fired from her position with no explanation. Sara has her suspicions, and through her own private investigations, plus including Watson in others, they think they know where, and possibly even towards whom, they should focus their attention. I read this as quickly as anything I can ever remember, less than a day, with fewer breaks than normal. Watson's story is both bleak and inspiring. She has PTSD, continually panicking at loud sounds, or unexpected, quick movements by others. As we know from our current situation, racial tensions and animosities have never been eliminated, only lying dormant for periods, simmering under the surface. It's still the case in this future scenario, with the new Civil War still ongoing. Based on a synopsis I just read it will still be raging in the second book in the series, The Hound of Justice, due in July. I will be following The Janet Watson Chronicles in the future, and I suggest you do the same. I recommend this book unreservedly.
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