This week, the Whitney Book Bistro met to discuss Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca. Our first responder eagerly raised her hand, ready to share a Good Reads review by Phair that captured our member’s assessment in a book that looked enticing but “turned out to be a dissatisfying, unfocused ‘creative non-fiction’ book full of rambling, tedious detail . . .”
The room had already been energized by the buzz of quiet discussion as we started and heads were nodding about the table as she read the full review. The book read more like a research paper. The story faded away, as if the author just lost interest. One of us was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as our previous non-fiction, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. The author could have put more of the story in his own words. Grace Humiston’s character just wasn’t developed. Was the author even a native speaker? His sentence structure was awkward and full of errors.
But did we really all dislike it? Could the book be a nominee for 2018’s Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book[i] if it didn’t have merit? One of us had treated the book as a series of detective stories, not looking for a novel. He was ready to try Erik Larson after some of our comparisons with Devil in the White City. A couple of other nods and the detail of our discussion told another story about our engagement with the book.
Grace Humiston denounced any likeness to Sherlock Holmes because of her belief in common sense and persistence over deduction. One of us read the definition of common sense from Wikipedia, which emphasizes the meaning as “sound practical judgement . . .shared by nearly all people.”[ii] Many of us had never heard of peonage. We were astounded by the barber in Italy who recruited his fellow countrymen into such slavery. Some of us were amazed that sex trafficking was such a concern at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of us had heard that criminals are now making more money from the sex trade than from drugs. We discussed how little things change: the unreliable and even misleading reports from media, police corruption, victim blaming. Ruth Cruger was dead so quickly that even had the police performed better, what would it have mattered? We compared the stories to recent cases such as that of Jayme Closs,[iii] and the 1981 killing of Adam Walsh[iv].
Many of us continued to criticize the book, questioning its reliability and its construction as well as comparisons with other books we are reading or have read. One of us offered to lend her copy of the silent film, Traffic of Souls, referenced inaccurately in the book. One member also shared how the book had resonated with him because of his father’s experiences of nearly dying from the flu in 1918, and how at that time Italian immigrants were so poor that Catholic priests ignored them. Whatever our opinion of the book, though, what a discussion! Thanks for joining in.
- Other works discussed:
- Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama
- The Black Hand : the epic war between a brilliant detective and the deadliest secret society in American history (2017) by Stephan Talty
- The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness and the Fair That Changed America (2003) by Erik Larson
- Educated : a memoir (2018) by Tara Westover
- Messing with the enemy : surviving in a social media world of hackers, terrorists, Russians, and fake news (2018) by Clint Watts
- The reckoning (1986) by David Halberstam
- The Warmth of Other Suns : the epic story of America’s great migration (2017) by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough
[i] 2018 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. Web accessed 3-15-19: https://mysterywriters.org/mwa-announces-the-2018-edgar-award-winners/
[iii] “The suspect charged in the kidnapping of Wisconsin girl Jayme Closs and killing her parents in cold blood confessed to investigators that he targeted the 13-year-old after seeing her board her school bus and decided ‘he knew that was the girl he was going to take,’ according to a criminal complaint.” Hutchinson, B. (2019, January 14). Chilling details emerge in Jayme Closs kidnapping as suspect makes first court appearance. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/man-accused-kidnapping-13-year-wisconsin-girl-killing/story?id=60343911