This article contains major spoilers for A Study in Honor, the first book in the Janet Watson Chronicles series.
Holmes and Watson are back once again—not your great grandparents’ London, but in a near-future, dystopian D.C., where the New Confederacy is at war with the United States in a second, bloody Civil War. Sara Holmes is an enigmatic federal agent, on enforced leave from her job due to her actions in O’Dell’s first novel, A Study in Honor. Dr. Janet Watson is struggling to regain her skills as a surgeon following a war-time event that cost her an arm. And their old enemy, Nadine Adler, isn’t as dead as everyone thinks.
While the name references are clear to spot, The Hound of Justice pays little other homage to the Holmesian cannon, and there’s no Sir Baskerville to save from a cursed hound. Instead, O’Dell delves deeper into the world she created in the first novel, focusing on Watson’s struggle with her lost arm and her adjustment to her prosthetic before moving straight into spy-in-training territory as Watson has to come to Holmes’s aid behind enemy lines.
Watson’s ongoing development, and her struggles with guilt, worthiness, anger, and injustice, are beautifully drawn. While the hook from the first novel of the gender-swapped, race-swapped, queer Holmes and Watson will continue to grab readers, it’s Watson’s voice and commentary—and O’Dell’s vision of a truly horrible outcome for the current divide in U.S. politics—that will keep the pages turning late into the night.
Watson and Lazarus
A pivotal event in the world—and in the life of Janet Watson—is the bloody battle at Alton, Illinois, which Janet survived, and which was fueled by power-drugged soldiers created by the pharmaceuticals company owned by Nadine Adler. In a final battle in A Study in Honor, Adler shot Janet, and Adler escaped, only to die in the police confrontation that would have brought her to justice. Or so the government claims; Sara Holmes is not convinced.
A bombing during the parade celebrating the presidential inauguration sends Janet straight back to Alton, and once she pushes through the PTSD, she runs toward the center of the conflict, trying to help however she can. When she follows the injured to the emergency room of the hospital where she is still on probation, until she and her prosthetic device act as one, she’s turned away from doing anything further to help. The Bloody Inauguration, as it comes to be known, earns Sara back her position at the federal agency where she works. Holmes lunges into the investigation with the gusto of a starved woman at a feast.
And though she gives Watson a peek into the investigation, she soon vanishes, and Janet is served notice that she will be required to find a new residence, as their apartment, sponsored by Sara’s employers, is being reclaimed. Robbed of her best friend (and the possible romantic relationship that Sara sent off its rails before she left), Janet struggles to fit the pieces of her life together, much the way she struggles with training her device.
O’Dell spends a lot of time in the novel discussing Janet’s relationship with the prosthetic arm, which Janet names Lazarus. It’s a defining characteristic for Janet: her ghost arm, which she still feels (and occasionally leans on, only to find it’s not there), and the device that doesn’t quite match up to her expectations. It’s a state-of-the-art piece of technology, a replacement given to her, along with her probationary position at Georgetown University Hospital, as a reward for her efforts in A Study in Honor—and an incentive to keep her silent on those events.
Between her therapist and her physical therapist, Janet spends a lot of time trying to connect her ghost arm with her device—and dealing with her guilt and anger. She struggles with wanting to deserve the things she’s been given to keep her quiet. She feels guilty over not doing more for her family. And she’s so very angry: at the world, at its unfairness, at the continued injustice she faces even in the United States, which claims to support equality, and at the bigot terrorists of the New Confederacy, who kill in the name of white supremacy.
While the setting is years removed from current events, they’re never far from the page. Janet references the bad old Trump years, the events that made the divide between the United States and the New Confederacy possible. The United States struggles with finding a way to end the war, but as they and the New Confederacy reach toward compromise, extremists—and those looking to profit from ongoing war—continue to fan the flames. If it all rings a little close to home, that’s probably quite intentional.
Hope in a Time of Hopelessness
When Sara disappears, Janet is faced with the prospect of moving forward without her friend. And while that means not being involved in any more undercover work, or having her dates interrupted by her erratic roommate, Janet doesn’t spare a thought for those conveniences. Instead, she mourns a friend she cares for very deeply, and when Sara needs her help, even though it means putting everything at risk, Janet agrees. Under the cover of helping her family in Georgia—the same family she’s been feeling guilty for not helping—she takes leave from her job and travels south, connecting with Sara’s even more enigmatic cousin Micah, a master of disguise (probably named for Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother).
Janet is a doctor, not a spy, but she manages with the quick changes and doubling back techniques that Micah and her network—not associated with Sara’s employers—require of her until they get across the border. There, they meet the Resistance and are reunited with Sara Holmes for a mission that returns not only to the events of the first novel, but also pulls pieces from early scenes of this novel to show that the conspiracies of war are close to Janet’s work life. To save the day, Sara needs a surgeon, and Janet has to rise to the occasion—despite all her fears of inadequacy, she must once again be a surgeon, and she and Lazarus must work as one.
O’Dell does a fascinating job pulling together all the pieces from the beginning of the novel, weaving them into a tight and intense climax. The early pages initially seem meandering in the best possible way: looking into Janet’s character so deeply is always fascinating, even when it seems unrelated to the plot. That O’Dell can seed those things in so that they only become obvious on reveal is a mark of her talent. Her exploration of Janet’s missing arm and her relationship with her device is fascinating. O’Dell also envisions what it is like to be a black woman—to be invisible, underestimated, and undervalued—in a way that feels authentic (to this white, straight, able-bodied reviewer). O’Dell is a pen name for Beth Bernobich, who is not African American; this is an #OwnVoices book for PTSD and bisexuality, but not for race and disability.
While the hook strays farther from the original Holmes and Watson premise, The Hound of Justice is a fantastic citizen-spy novel, rife with espionage tension, featuring deeply compelling commentary on current events. But it’s also a fascinating character study, and I think that even without the high stakes, I would read about Janet Watson’s adventures in medicine and in love. Thankfully, I get to have both.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.
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