Maybe, like me, you didn’t know you needed a queer retelling of Sherlock Holmes. But you do. You so do.
Sherlock Holmes was brilliant as a teenager and she’s brilliant as an adult but not everyone is open to genius. As a teenager during World War II, she got expelled from most schools for wanting more than was taught in the curriculum designed for girls. As an adult in 1955, she’s a private detective and a mistress of disguise, still waiting for her big case. Something pulls her towards Johnnie Watson as soon as they meet, even though they couldn’t be more different. Johnnie needs a place to stay, Sherlock needs a flatmate. A first experience with a classmate has left Sherlock convinced she’s better off married to her job than looking for a relationship but meeting Johnnie will make her question this belief, especially as they are hired to investigate a murder at Johnnie’s favourite queer bar.
Sherlock and Johnnie embody exactly what I love in well-written characters: one looks frail but is strong and one looks strong but is vulnerable, and it’s that complexity of human beings I look for. When it’s done well, as it is here, it’s extremely satisfying.
Sherlock is a chameleon (and probably on the autistic spectrum), taking on other people’s personalities as naturally as most people would put on a new pair of socks, but she’s also very much herself, always. Johnnie is loyal and smart but always a step behind Sherlock even as she tries to both support and keep her safe.
One of my favourite aspects of this story, besides the mystery and the inquiry, is how Sherlock and Johnnie are always communicating. At first, they don’t know how to tell each other what they want, what they feel, but they learn together, and what makes it so fantastic is how they, Johnnie especially, are prisoners of what is expected of them, not from the heteronormative world but from their own queer world, where you’re either butch or femme and there are expectations, most notably in sexual matters. The intimate scenes are not simply steamy, they’re wonderful also because of the way both characters are always talking to each other, the way they laugh together. And yes, the sex too.
The writing style made my heart sing. I loved the use of repetition, especially in sex scenes. The rhythm, the hesitation, the fumbling, the emotions, the heat. Perfection.
Another reason to love How the Mouth Changes its Shape is all the historical research that went into it. I learnt a lot from the chapter notes alone about London in the 1950s, about the queer scene at the time, and about women in World War II.