Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes are looking for a winter-break reprieve after a fall semester that almost got them killed. But Charlotte isn’t the only Holmes with secrets, and the mood at her family’s Sussex estate is palpably tense. On top of everything else, Holmes and Watson could be becoming more than friends—but still, the darkness in Charlotte’s past is a wall between them.
A distraction arises soon enough, because Charlotte’s beloved uncle Leander goes missing from the estate—after being oddly private about his latest assignment in a German art forgery ring. The game is afoot once again, and Charlotte is single-minded in her pursuit.
Their first stop? Berlin. Their first contact? August Moriarty (formerly Charlotte’s obsession, currently believed by most to be dead), whose powerful family has been ripping off famous paintings for the last hundred years. But as they follow the gritty underground scene in Berlin to glittering art houses in Prague, Holmes and Watson begin to realize that this is a much more complicated case than a disappearance. Much more dangerous, too.
What they learn might change everything they know about their families, themselves, and each other.
Wow. What a hot mess of a novel. Honestly, I’m not quite sure where to start.
I read the first book in this series quite recently, A Study in Charlotte, and almost immediately ordered the sequel. I raced through The Last of August in one day, thanks to an extremely delayed train and the UK’s inability to cope with snow, and was left reeling by the ending, desperate for more.
I was attracted to the series primarily because of my obsession with all things Sherlock Holmes. I read the original books, loved the BBC series (until it got terrible), devoured Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock series; and have written about Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone. A Study in Charlotte sounded right up my street; promising a combination of all these elements and more.
“I tended to spend too much time with my favorite things, loved them too hard until I wore them down. After a while, they became more like a shorthand for who I was and less like things I actually enjoyed.”
I thought the first book was a good introduction to the characters as it took place in a relatively contained boarding-school setting , and the second book certainly expands its horizons- travelling from London to Sussex, to Berlin to Prague and involving underground art forgery rings, blackmail, kidnapping and dark family secrets coming to light.
Some reviewers have commented that the novel overreaches itself, and I agree it is hard at some points to track exactly what’s happening, but the fast-paced narrative style does also create an exciting whirlwind atmosphere. The comparison to a whirlwind is particularly apt, as the zippy crime solving sessions are interspersed with pockets of stillness, usually filled by emotional and intense confrontations between Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson.
“I forgot that if we don’t talk about your feelings every few hours, you devolve into a hipster lumberjack.”
The Holmes/Watson dynamic, and its clearly toxic nature, is what makes the books so intriguing. Charlotte is carrying the trauma from being sexually assaulted before the start of the first book, as well as various other issues from her past, and is uncomfortable with emotional and physical intimacy. Jamie idealises her and their relationship, perhaps inevitably, given their famous ancestors; he is uncertain as to where he stands with her and lashes out in jealousy, which is exacerbated in this book by the presence of August. The collision of these two people inevitably means that half the time they argue and the other half they are everything to each other, a dramatic oscillation which does not make for a healthy relationship.
The situation is complicated by the juxtaposition of the fantastical crime and mystery setting with the very real issues being discussed, creating a strange tonal dissonance at times. The absence of responsible guardian figures in this novel is a reoccurring trope in fantasy/action YA fiction, as it allows the teenage main characters to have more agency and power they would otherwise possess. But this also means they only have each other to turn to for emotional support, which is not always helpful when issues arise and they are incapable of dealing with them healthily.
This is something which has put off some reviewers. One that I read expressed disappointment at Charlotte’s dismissal of therapy as something which could help her heal, but just because that is what she thinks it doesn’t mean we are meant to agree with her. These are characters who almost never do things that would be best for them, after all.
“A Pimm’s cup,” I said, with fancy posh-boy vowels, because I’d decided that Simon was rich, and because people drank Pimm’s cups at the races I’d seen on television, and yes, it was becoming abundantly clear that Holmes was right, I was an awful spy, because if tonight was any indication, my entire knowledge of the world came from Thursday-night TV.”
While I was reading, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud a few times. I particularly enjoyed the sending up of pretentious quasi-intellectual art speak, and Jamie’s art student alter-ego, who is, quite frankly, inspired and might be my favourite part of the book.
This novel is not without its flaws- the plot sometimes becoming too convoluted and incoherent- but it is certainly an exhilarating read. Cavallaro’s writing style is also interesting- slightly uneven in clarity but containing several very expressive and memorable turns of phrase. I would recommend this series to Sherlock Holmes fans, and those who are interested in YA mystery/crime novels, but be warned- once you get into it you’ll be hooked.
Image: Taken at Baker Street tube station ;) Quotations from Brittany Cavallaro Summary: Goodreads