The Janet Watson Chronicles
by Claire O'Dell
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 29, 2019
Addendum on July 19, 2020
1. A Study in Honor / 2. The Hound of Justice / 3. The Sign of Three (pending)
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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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It has been nearly a year since The Hound of Justice was published, and close to six months since I bought the Kindle copy when it was on sale. I had previously been turned down for an ARC. It begins about two months following the end of the first book. Janet is still uncertain of Sara's governmental affiliation, and is sworn to secrecy concerning her knowledge of events. In return, she has a new prosthesis, and a position at Georgetown University Hospital, hopeful of being reinstated as an active surgeon. I'm still not sure what year this is supposed to be, but probably at least twenty years in the future. A couple of fictional future Presidents are mentioned, along with Janet's recollections of the past, with comments on Obama and Trump specifically. Whatever year it is, it starts in January with a Presidential Inauguration. The New Confederacy has control of sections of the country, without specifics as to the extent of their territory, but it is apparent they also have sympathetic followers within the Federal States. On the day of the Inauguration of President Donnovan there are riots and bombings. Dozens of people are killed, many more injured, but the attack against the President fails. Janet aids several injured people in the streets, then goes to the hospital to do what she can, but is denied access to the surgical theater since she has not yet completed her recertification. She helps in the ER with triage of patients instead.
After a few weeks things settle down, but then mysterious deaths begin occurring with readmitted patients, some of whom had been treated and released for injuries sustained in January. I was sure that was going to be a major portion of the plot, and it is, but it took most of the book to understand the how and why. Even though Sara appears a few times, anything she tells Janet is very cryptic and insubstantial. Janet meets a relative of Sara's, her cousin Micha, obviously also a covert agent. Janet's grandmother in Georgia is exhibiting the beginning signs of Alzheimer's, so Janet asks for a month's leave to check out nursing options for her. That is actually a ruse for her to connect with Sara in an attempt to infiltrate the New Confederacy. Sara is involved, eventually, but Janet interacts more with Micha, who is a master of disguise, and also proficient in obtaining fake IDs, vehicles, and weapons. I won't go into any detail about the case, other than to say it ties into the previous investigation. There are at least two things that defy logic. One involves how they get into Arkansas, without mention of a certain geographical feature. The other is their "covert" job at a facility in Oklahoma, which is where they've tracked their suspect, and from which they hope to rescue a biochemist and her sister. Janet is along since a bit of surgery is required once the rescue is successful.
The rest of the narrative is tense and exciting, with lots of emotional introspection by Janet, but as with the first book there are some clichéd moments. Both of these stories would make exciting TV series or films, but something that happens way too often in shows of this type is the resurrection of characters previously thought dead. That is the case here for two different people (and maybe three, but we'll have to wait for the next book). Another thing, not really a criticism, just an observation. There is growing support for "Own Voices" fiction, stories about marginalized characters that should be written by people in the same demographic. This is not to say O'Dell is not writing these characters sympathetically, but she is not Black herself. I'm not Black either, so it's possible I didn't notice things that are not authentic, but which Black readers might criticize. Bear that in mind when deciding whether they might interest you. I've enjoyed both these books, and I can recommend them, but I'd rate this one a bit below the first. And once again I should point out the cover art for both books is incorrect. Janet's prosthesis is on her left arm.
A little more than a week ago the author uploaded a prequel short story on her website, free to download. My Journal of a Plague Year takes place when Janet is 12 years old. It's set during a pandemic, but not the current one, it's already into the future. She and her family and others are hiding in the basement of their apartment building as riots rage outside. She gets her first inspiration to become a doctor while assisting a Black woman surgeon treating a man with gunshot wounds. Short, but it resonates emotionally. A third novel has been named, The Sign of Three, but no word yet on when that might be published.
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