Books: Wednesday, October 24, 2002
Castle Rouge
By Carole Nelson Douglas
TorForge, 538 pages, $25.95.
Holmes on the Range

Fort Worth author Carole Nelson Douglas explores Jack the Ripper in her latest mystery.


When Carole Nelson Douglas decided to leave her career in journalism to write fiction full-time, she knew doing so meant leaving behind the rough winters of St. Paul, Minn., for good. “My husband often took the snowblower up on the roof because it had piled so high,” she said. Douglas told that story to a man in Fort Worth, and he replied, “What’s a snowblower?”It seemed one more reason for the author and her husband to make the sunny city their new home.

That was in 1984, and since then, Douglas has certainly established herself in her new career. She has penned two successful detective series — Midnight Louie, which is about a black feline investigator who fights crime in Las Vegas, and Irene Adler, heroine of one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes pastiches ever published.

The Adler series follows the adventures of the eponymous heroine who first appeared in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That story opens with Watson and Holmes learning of the death of Adler, prompting recollections of the “scandal” in which Adler, a beautiful opera singer, outwitted Holmes and stumped his belief in women’s inferiority.

In Douglas’ first Adler novel, Good Night, Mr. Holmes (winner of the American Mystery award and a New York Times Notable Book of 1991), Adler is never killed off. Rather, she establishes her own detective career. Quick-witted, clever, strong, she is, like Holmes, a master of disguise. Doyle portrayed Adler dressed convincingly as a young man, but Douglas takes this talent even further: In the first book, and the others that followed, Adler assumes any number of masks — from peasant to princess — and plays them superbly.

Douglas is the first women novelist to write about the detective from a feminist perspective. “I wondered why only men were doing pastiches on Holmes,” she said. “That doesn’t reflect the reality of who is reading them.” Her point highlights a fact long known to Sherlockians — their world has largely been a male one. Even the association known as the Baker Street Irregulars, an esteemed Sherlockian club named after the peasant boys Holmes often hired to run errands for him, did not permit women to join until the 1990s.

Sherlock Holmes, however, can thank Douglas for rescuing his image in the modern world. “I’m not reinventing Holmes,” she said, “but exploring him from a different perspective.” In her novels, Holmes is more of a bohemian, “an eccentric; the intellectual who doesn’t quite fit in.” He’s not the aloof English gentleman that some Sherlockians glamorize him to be, but a lanky, socially awkward genius who doesn’t mind dirtying his clothes to closely examine a footprint. He’s not a cold, calculating machine who sneers at women’s “inferiority,” but a man who sympathizes with the lower classes. And, against his will, he’s falling in love with Irene Adler.

Douglas’ novels have been wildly successful, and TorForge, in addition to releasing Douglas’ latest in the Adler series, Castle Rouge, will soon be reissuing the first three Irene Adler novels under new titles: The Adventuress, Another Scandal in Bohemia, and A Soul of Steel.

No doubt her readers also admire the vast amount of research Douglas invests in each book. In Castle Rouge, Adler and Holmes work separately on the same case — finding Jack the Ripper, who traumatized London with his brutal murders of women in the Whitechapel section of the city. Indeed, the pair are almost in a race to capture the serial killer and to outwit each other. During the course of their parallel investigations, various historical figures cross their paths, including Prince Albert of England and the American cowboy, Buffalo Bill.

“Irene, as Doyle created her, is an opera singer,” said Douglas, “and that would have put her in certain circles in which she would have met these people.” In Castle Rouge, the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker, joins the hunt for the Ripper. Despite stretching her imagination past historical fact, Douglas does justice to history and stays within its framework. “I make sure that the dates I have characters involved in my plots are dates they would have been ‘available,’ ” she said. “We tend to compartmentalize history and forget that these people’s lives intersected quite often.”

Douglas has also won acclaim for writing two very different detective series equally well: historical Sherlock pastiches as well as modern detective novels partially narrated by a cat. However, despite the contrasting subject matter, Douglas does not hesitate in shifting between them. She can pick up a Midnight Louie manuscript in the morning and work on an Adler book in the afternoon. “I was a theater major in college, and I despised typecasting,” she said. “I prefer to play opposites — it challenges me, and I like to always be creatively ‘stretching’ with my writing.”

Having written more than 40 novels, Douglas recently completed another Midnight Louie book and plans at least two more in the Irene Adler series. She writes several hours a day, in addition to handling the “business” of being a popular writer, such as taking phone calls and giving interviews.

Living in Fort Worth no doubt contributes to her prolific career: “A full-time writer,” she says, “needs a lot of sunshine.”

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