Rating 2/5 – A Study in Honor (aka The Janet Watson Chronicles Book 01) is a book written in July 2018 by Claire O’Dell (real name Beth Bernobich). This book cannot be discussed unless you talk about a major elephant in the room; white authors writing black characters. For years there has been a bit of a debate about white writers can successfully writer black characters. It’s been happening forever, from Othello to Huckleberry Finn and many to come after those two. Black Panther, which was one of the biggest movies in 2018, is a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby two white Jewish men. As a black man, the knee-jerk answer to the question would be ‘no.” The reason is books like Huckleberry Finn where throughout the novel all black characters are referred to as an n-word and the excuses given to Mr. Twain by people. (It was a sign of the times. That really a bullshit excuse, but one all whites seem to need to make.) Rhodey Rhodes, who was created by white comic artists and writers, was created in answer to John Stewart becoming Green Lantern in DC. He pops up as the famous Demon in a Bottle storyline for Iron Man begins and is the person who puts on the Iron Man armor while Tony Stark deals with his alcohol addiction. These are just a few of many examples.
So what’s the problem? After all, these are a fictional character in fictional worlds that are often fantastic places or alternate histories. Black Panther has always been a major player in the Marvel Universe, even before the movies. Huckleberry Finn is considered classic literature even if the black character is referred to by the N-word throughout the book. Rhodey Rhodes is supposed to be a war veteran and pilot but his dialogue is written with that Blacksploitation slang which everyone in my neighborhood knew instantly was written by white people. How did we know? Because it was all so bad and derivative, and no black every said the shit you read these characters say. (For fuck sake, no one in Harlem would scream out “Sweet Christmas” writers of Luke Cage. Where the hell did you get that crap from?)
The main problem when white write characters of color is they do it from perception rather than experience. This perception often comes from already created media, even if the writer doesn’t know it. This is not something that singularly effects them, we’re all a reflection of perceptive influence as opposed to experience.
Because the idea of A Study in Honor is an interesting one; what if Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were a pair of LGBT characters of color living in a future America currently going through a 2nd civil war sparked by the actions of the Trump administration. Beth Bernobich is an open feminist so much so that she describes her book as “a futuristic feminist take on Sherlock Holmes.” The book suffers from more than the characters clearly being written by a white woman – it completely misses the point of Sherlock Holmes.
A Study in Honor – Trapped by Tropes
As a comic collector/geek I’m often mystified by how people believe we want every movie or TV show based on comic character to follow panel by panel editions of comics. This is far from what most comic geeks are saying. What we are saying is if you’re going to do a movie about an established comic character, don’t forget to include what makes that character the character. This is why Man of Steel didn’t work. Superman is a positive example, a beacon of hope. He’s not dark and broody with a father who says he should let people die to hide his identity. That’s not Superman nor is it a good take on Superman.
This is because popular characters have specific Tropes you cannot escape from. You can make Hulk a stomping monster or a figure from a horror movie, but however, you decide to make him he better be Hulk. Hulk is a rage monster, so if you do a Hulk movie and he’s sipping tea trying to figure out the true number of Pi, that’s not Hulk. Sherlock Holmes is exactly the same way. You can play with his setting, his age, and even his gender but you better make sure Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes. His trope is he’s about figuring things out purely through deductive reasons, or the Art of Deduction. Every show and movie gets that part. Robert Downy Jr. might have made him an action hero but they did not forget the Art of Deduction. Sherlock takes one look at you and can tell you where you eat, your current relationship status, where you just came from, etc. And when he’s asked to explain he does and you read or watch it like “oh crap, why didn’t I notice that.” Because that’s what makes Sherlock Holmes. That’s how you know him.
Sara Holmes, the black LGBT version in A Study in Honor doesn’t seem to have any deductive skills that are presented in the text. Instead, she has implants that connect her to information via some sort of internet connection thing that’s not fully explained. She’s a spy for a shadow government agency whose working against the “conservative” side of the 2nd Civil War. O’Dell writes the superiority complex and off-putting demeanor but robs Sara Holmes of what makes her Holmes. I don’t believe I read one part of this book where Holmes actually displays the famous Art of Deduction as Holmes does in any version written about him. The sad part is Sara Holmes is not the worse part of the novel – Janet Watson is.
A Study in Honor – White Writes Black Fail
Could someone please tell white liberals that while micro-aggressions is a thing and a bit of a problem we black people no more make it part of our decision making as we would dog shit in the street or smelling a fart on a crowded train. We are aware of it, it’s fucking annoying but not a thing that drives us during our daily lives. We have police brutality and macro-aggression called overt racism to contend with much more. White people who acknowledge micro-aggressions go overboard in thinking this is the big problem. It’s not micro-aggressions that has Trump supporters physically attacking people of color or homosexuals. It’s not micro-aggressions that cause red-lining or unfair loan practices in banks. That’s straight up racism.
Dr. Watson is always portrayed as ex-military, though in the original novels not that much was made from it. It was the BBC show Sherlock that made this a thing. In A Study in Honor, it’s not just a thing, it’s the thing. Janet Watson suffers from both losing an arm and obviously severe PTSD from being a medic during the 2nd Civil war. She gets a robot arm, but not a cool robot arm like in a lot of science fiction or even that last Mad Max movie. Nope. Her arm is not just completely useless but often gets in the way. And she’s afraid of everything. Just encountering a micro-aggression stops her in her tracks and at the same time stops the story from moving. The reason Holmes chooses her makes little sense and comes off as convoluted in places.
Female Writes Female Lead Problems
I have a question for female writers – and I ask it knowing full well I’m a male and can only understand a certain issue from an empathic POV. However, why do so many female writers make their lead female character complete emotional wrecks? Read Kim Harrison’s Hollow’s series where the main character, a powerful and clever witch, is constantly stopped in her tracks by a metric ton of self-doubt and regret and whining I never seen in male characters written by male writers. I get characters should be flawed, but to be Sheldon level annoying gets. .well, annoying. In her Peri Reed book, the lead female is even worse. She’s a victim or everyone around her and her powers, so much so that when the “All Is Lost” Moment comes it’s such a goddamn drag I simply couldn’t finish the book. It’s not just Kim Harrison but a lot of female writers do this sort of thing to their female leads, and Claire O’Dell (aka Beth Bernobich) does the same thing with Janet Watson.
There were points I wanted to put the book down because Janel Watson was just so fucking pathetic and depressing. I’m not talking about being a second sidekick to Holmes, I’m talking about how she handles day to day life and the so-called mystery the two are investigating. A lot of it is a complete misinterpretation of how Black people handle day-to-days in racist countries. 80% of what Janel Holmes goes through in the book are relative micro-aggressions and all too often it makes her doubt herself, stops her in her tracks or reminds her of survival lesson her black parents gave her about dealing with everyday racism. They sound good but get a lot of things wrong. Why is very simple, because the author is writing from someone who looks in and has never experienced. The best thing white author can do is just make the character a character and don’t try to understand what they go through. Okay, that sounded bad. What I mean is if you don’t have to explain racism in your book, or make it crippling to the point the book is hard to read.
Let’s Not Forget that Shipping
The one thing I have no problem with this book is the obvious shipping because Holmes and Watson have been shipped for ages. They were shipped before the word “shipped” ever became a thing. Whether they are best friends or lovers it makes no difference as long as Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is Dr. Watson. The same kind of people who might get upset because the two black female characters are LGBT doesn’t have a problem with Tyler Perry in a dress, therefore, I take their opinion with a grain of sugar. As long as the relationship fits within the story and doesn’t feel forced, then it makes no difference. With A Study in Honor, this worked on a shipper’s level and was not a thing that got in the way of the story as the other problems were.
I wanted a new and different take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This book gave me a Holmes that wasn’t Holmes, a Watson suffering from way too many mental health problems to be effective, which a corniest robot arm in science fiction and a mystery that seemed to be solved by the pair stumbling on to clues rather that Sara Holmes being this larger than life crime solver with the incredible mind. A Study in Honor does not inspire me to read the next book because I feel with all the problems as I presented in this review the book is just too filled with lost opportunities.