Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review of "Of White Snakes and Misshaped Owls" by Debra Hyde

Here’s something fun. Award-winning author Debra Hyde cleverly appropriates the Victorian detective thriller, making it very much her own in the process. A briskly-paced literary divertissement with a sly tip of the hat to Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional creation, Of White Snakes and Misshaped Owls will appeal to mystery fans as well as discerning readers of well-drawn f/f erotic romance.

Hyde sets her story in New York City during the early 1880s. Chester A, Arthur is president following the assassination of James Garfield, and the infamous Boss Tweed is rotting in prison, convicted on more than two hundred counts of corruption, though Tammany Hall and the old political patronage system are still in full operation, with the tentacles of influence reaching deep into the poorer quarters of Manhattan, the fast-rising tenements of new immigrant communities and nativist conclaves alike. The phonograph, the telephone, and the electric light bulb are all in their curious infancies. A fascinating and colorful era to be sure, witnessing the birth of much that the world would come to know as “modern”. Yet there are some things even this most self-congratulatory “forward-looking” of times was hardly ready to acknowledge, let alone accept. Portraying detective Charlotte Olmes and her assistant/companion Joanna Wilson as a lesbian couple in the deeply closeted culture of the Gilded Age lends an element of dramatic tension and transgressive intrigue to the story, the threat of humiliation, blackmail and “ruin” lurking behind every dark corner. (I hope Hyde will explore these issues in greater depth in subsequent stories, especially as she so skillfully avoids mawkishness, or cheap titillation in her realistic and likeable portrayal of this relationship.)

And I do like these characters, not simply because it’s fun to recognize their roots in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Hyde’s quirky, brilliant, moody Charlotte Olmes could well hold her own against Doyle’s eccentric genius. She is an example of a type that still fascinates to this day—a tradition stretching from Hypatia of Alexandria to George Sand, Calamity Jane and Gertrude Stein—the strong, independent, freethinking woman, unafraid to break the rules, which are, after all, made by and for men. Particularly in the Victorian period, such women were looked upon with suspicion and outright condescension—perhaps masking a deep-seeded dread—their accomplishments all-too-often redacted from “official” record. It’s then something akin to a stroke of genius for Hyde to make Olmes’ partner, Joanna, the top in the bedchamber.  

A few small quibbles. One involves narrative point-of-view. The book opens with a portrayal of a crime, related in third person. With no clearly delineated section breaks, readers are then immediately immersed in Joanna’s Dr.-Watson-like first-person account. Again, without clear breaks or new chapter headings, we are tossed from time to time back into third person, following the criminal as he moves towards his inevitable capture and downfall—a portrayal which seems neither necessary or particularly effective.  This sort of shifting would be acceptable, but without some typographical device to offer fair warning it tends to induce vertigo. There are some basic (face-palm inducting) copyediting oversights and examples of poor formatting here and there, which, readers may hope, will be corrected for the subsequent print and further electronic editions. (And how difficult is it, after all, to revise an e-book?)  

Granted, I do tend to pick up on small details, which faster, more casual readers might simply never notice.  Most who read for pleasure are quite willing to forgive the occasional typographic faux pas if there’s a good story to be enjoyed.

But all bad-tempered-inner-copyeditor complaints aside, there is most assuredly a good story here. And if my prognosticative skills are anywhere up to snuff, I foresee Debra Hyde’s Charlotte Olmes series becoming a very popular and successful franchise, the new de regaire for vacation and beach-reading, or just the thing to curl up with by a warm fire on a bleak winter’s night; the perfect literary snack, light, refreshing, digestible and delicious.


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