So I’ve just finished reading The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby and it was a perfectly adequate way to pass the time. And, publishers, make sure you quote me if you’re going to put that on the posters. But sadly, when I think of The House at Baker Street that’s all I really feel. I feel like it was fine. It wasn’t horribly offensive or bad but it wasn’t exactly good either. It exists in the in-between. Fine.
The House at Baker Street is narrated by Mrs Hudson, the bustling, kindly housekeeper to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner John Watson. One day, when Holmes turns down a client Mrs Hudson apprehends her on the stairs. Hearing the details of the case, Mrs Hudson decides, along with Watson’s new wife Mary, to take the case themselves. Pit against a mysterious and shadowy man who knows a few too many women’s secrets, they must outwit him, operating out of the kitchen in 221B.
It’s a slow start, as Mrs Hudson (who is called Martha here, due to some evidence she may have been the Martha in His Last Bow) and Mary decide to take up the case. The writing, in general, seemed to be very simplistic. I think Birkby was trying to catch the flavour of the time period, through Mrs Hudson’s voice, but it comes off as very plain and lacking character. Mrs Hudson is a woman, of course, and women in those times were treated very differently, so when Mrs Hudson and Mary giggle with each other about being detectives, it is believable, but it doesn’t make it any less tedious reading it from this time era. And there’s an awful lot of ‘bursting out laughing’ in this novel.
Repetition seems to almost be intentional. Mrs Hudson describes some things in great detail, like her kitchen, and details of this keep cropping up when they needn’t. Also, Mrs Hudson’s worries bubble up to the surface A LOT. I counted four separate occasions where she said things like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’ ‘Us two detectives!’ ‘How exciting…’ These passages usually stretch on far too long and only serve to grind the narrative to a halt, even when it wasn’t going particularly fast to begin with.
I wasn’t looking to go into The House at Baker Street to engage with a wider message. I was just looking for a different kind of Holmes story. Unfortunately at times, the message seems to take centre stage as nothing much actually happens in its 300+page runtime. Indeed the story is entirely told from the kitchen for quite some time. I also took issue with Mrs Hudson calling herself and Mary detectives right off the bat, even though all they’d done was send one of the Irregulars out to do a bit of snooping. It was as if Mrs Hudson was having way too much fun with a crime that had a lot of victims.
The central message is a clear one. But when a message of female empowerment (which, obviously, I am all for) gets overstretched, I find that sometimes it can do exactly the opposite to how it was intended. I found that Birkby did overstate it a bit too much. Mrs Hudson, and Mary, have a lot of self-doubt and that’s fine. But this is echoed throughout, only serving to highlight the fact that there is little character development in the entire novel. I was expecting a Mrs Hudson, and a story in general, with a bit more bite.
The story chugs along and characters come and go. Holmes and Watson have small roles, and Irene Adler makes appearances throughout. It’s just quite hard to get excited about any of it. The central mystery is not really complex enough to get a good hold of it and the character material isn’t compelling enough to really care. There was definitely promise here, but everything’s just so… I come back to my initial word. Fine. It’s perfectly serviceable and might even lightly entertain. But anyone with a passion for crime fiction will likely be bored long before it’s over.
Also, should it not be called The House on Baker Street instead of The House at Baker Street? That at throws me for a loop every time I look at it.
The House at Baker Street is a perfectly serviceable crime caper based around everyone’s favourite London address. Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson come into the light as a new detective duo, but unfortunately repetition (in both plot and character) slows this novel down to a snail’s pace. It feels like not enough risks were taken. There’s nothing here to get angry about, but there’s nothing really to praise either. It is fine.
THE HOUSE AT BAKER STREET by MICHELLE BIRKBY