The year is 2020. The Archive of Our Own won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work the previous year and chaos reigns. Professional novelists—Hugo Award nominees, even!—are publishing their Sherlock wingfic and admitting it in print.
I should back up. The novel is The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, and it’s a very alternate take on Sherlock (which was itself of course a very particular take on Sherlock Holmes): it reverses Moffat and Gattis’s contemporary twist by setting itself in the Victorian era; Sherlock is an angel (yes, really), Watson is a hellhound, and both of them are evidently genderqueer.
But I’m still getting ahead of myself. The story starts in 1888, when Dr. J. H. Doyle is discharged from the Imperial Armed Forces after being injured by one of the Fallen in Afghanistan. Cashiered, permanently injured, perilously close to broke, Doyle jumps at the chance to take lodgings with a tolerant flatmate, in this case an angel called Crow. Over the next few months they deal with a panoply of cases which bear a distinct resemblance to some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest Sherlock Holmes hits, ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Mary Morstan is a trained, licensed clairvoyant; Moriarty is a vampire. Lestrade is an inspector. Mycroft is also an angel. Along the way, Crow becomes obsessed with the murderer whom the press christens Jack the Ripper.
On one level, as a Sherlock Holmes fan since childhood, I enjoyed this book immensely. As fans of her previous novel The Goblin Emperor (2014) can attest, Addison writes like a dream, and the compassion and care that elevated that novel is recognizable here in the careful way that Crow treats Doyle, and in the friendship and respect that grows between them. Moreover, even a cursory pass through her blog demonstrates that Addison is a true crime and Jack the Ripper aficionado whose knowledge of Victorian London is formidable. The book combines all of these strengths with an evident affection for Sherlock Holmes, while Addison’s stated goal of subverting the founding assumptions of Victorian society in terms of race and gender means that women get more to do and have a somewhat wider range of roles open to them, particularly on the supernatural side. Master vampires are apparently all female, for example, and I could have read several more books featuring the angels, werewolves, vampires, hellhounds, automata guardians, haemophages, and airships of this version of Victoria’s empire. There are quite a few enjoyable tips of the hat to the original Conan Doyle stories as well.
And yet. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I also have several questions about this novel. Relatedly, there’s a fundamental, unresolved tension at the heart of it that makes it difficult for me to recommend it unreservedly.
The strange case of the angel Crow
As someone who has written Sherlock Holmes fic herself, I have no quarrel with Addison writing the fic she wanted to read—even if that fic isn’t the fic I would have written. But making Sherlock Holmes an angel whose grasp of human society is entirely learned by observation is a choice that enshrines a certain interpretation of the character at the heart of it. As an angel, Crow is by definition not human, and though he does have feelings, they are obviously inhuman.
The worldbuilding in The Angel of the Crows gives the impression of solidity, but very little of it is fully explained, as Doyle knows things already and unlike John Watson is not relating the adventures for an audience. Fallen angels are angels gone bad, though it’s not clear how or why, or how much of their reason they retain; prolonged contact with them leads to injuries both physical and metaphysical and then death. It’s also possible for angels, which are associated with buildings, to dissolve back into the crowds of Nameless angels (who flit through major cities like the nameless businessmen in Magritte paintings) if the buildings they have claimed are destroyed. Such happened to Crow; he managed to hold onto his sense of self only by breaking off a piece of a banister from his former abode. His cleverly skirting the rules to retain his autonomy—he calls himself the Angel of London, and most people don’t know enough to understand the impossibility of that title—means that his fellow angels put severe limitations on him. It also means that he is able to employ the Nameless in some unusual ways, as he is much closer to them than most other beings realize.
I don’t want to reignite the 2011-era Tumblr wars, so rather than trying to set the major recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations against each other (Sherlock [2010-17]; Sherlock Holmes  and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ; Elementary [2012-19]), I will just say that all of them have different takes on Holmes, and on Watson, and all of them have different answers for the fundamental question of, “why does Watson put up with Holmes?” In the Robert Downey Jr. movies, it’s pretty clearly because Watson himself is an adrenaline junkie who’s torn between the consulting detective and his fiancée; in Elementary, it’s first because Joan’s getting paid and then because she decides to become an investigator in her own right. In Sherlock, the only rationale we get for a long time is Mycroft’s cold-blooded take: “You’re not haunted by the war, Dr. Watson. You miss it. Welcome back.”
As a child who loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the character himself, because she saw herself in Holmes, the recent trend toward portraying Holmes as completely heartless and interested only in the puzzle for the puzzle’s sake has pained me unreasonably. One of the suggested queries for “Sherlock Holmes” on Google now is “Is Sherlock Holmes a sociopath or a psychopath?”, which is derived from Sherlock and which misunderstands quite a few things about psychology and about Holmes. In the original stories, he was obviously unconventional, but his very unconventionality allowed him to patrol the margins of Victorian society, acting for justice as a liminal figure who could go where institutions such as the police and the law couldn’t and whose powers of observation allowed him to extend his compassion to people society had overlooked. The game was afoot, but he rarely lost sight of the clients whose cases he pursued.
Addison’s Crow isn’t a sociopath, and part of the cause of his fixation on the Ripper murders, and on violent crimes in general, is his sympathy for their victims. But his limitations as an angel in human society, and as an angel whom most of his fellows regard with mistrust, means that he is as likely to misunderstand the emotional nuance of a situation as he is to hit on an unusual angle from which to grasp and untangle it. Just as I didn’t love the fanon interpretation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock as asexual because he is cold, peremptory, and uninterested in social niceties—stereotypical traits that have nothing to do with asexuality—I didn’t love the way that Crow’s being an angel puts him ultimately and incontrovertibly outside the circle of humanity, even as his growing friendship with Doyle binds both of them more tightly into the society of Victorian London. To Addison’s credit, it’s clear why Doyle tolerates Crow: Crow is one of the few to grasp the prickly doctor’s boundaries and respect them.
The confused history of Dr. J. H. Doyle (with spoilers)
If I loved Holmes unreservedly as a child, it took me a lot longer to realize the importance of Dr. Watson. One of the first Holmes adaptations I saw was The Great Mouse Detective (1986), so I’m no stranger to—and even have a certain fondness for—the idea of the doctor as a bumbling idiot (which cartoonist Kate Beaton memorably termed “jam Watson”), even if he is just as much a product of later Sherlockian interpretations as the deerstalker hat. But Watson is the hinge of the stories; without him they literally wouldn’t exist in-world, as he’s the one who writes them down and (admittedly!) massages them for public consumption. People underestimate him frequently, which is part of the point, but he’s just as formidable as Holmes in his chosen fields, and their partnership is certainly one of the most fruitful in all of literature.
In The Angel of the Crows, Dr. J. H. Doyle comes off as anything but formidable. The novel is told entirely from Doyle’s tight first-person perspective, so it took a while to sink in, but eventually I realized that the good doctor was thoroughly miserable. Given that this is how the novel opens, it’s perhaps no wonder that Doyle hates London and is deeply unhappy there:
When I left London in 1878, I intended never to return. I had my medical degree and a commission in Her Majesty’s Imperial Armed Forces Medical Corps. If I died on the plains of Afghanistan in the service of my Queen, I would ask for nothing better. And if I did not die and somehow the war with Russia ended, one great truth of the world is that there is always need for doctors, whether you are in England, India, or Brazil. I could go wherever I pleased and be sure of earning a living.
The possibility that did not occur to me was that I would neither die nor see the end of the war. (p. 1)
Over the course of the book, Doyle does slowly become slightly less miserable, although their injuries from their encounter with the fallen angel do not fully heal: Doyle’s equivalent of Watson’s leg injury (or PTSD, depending on your preferred adaptation) is having become a hellhound—and an unregistered hellhound, as the doctor is, is an illegal thing to be. Besides that, we learn eventually that there are reasons that Doyle quit the metropole and intended never to return: among other factors, the doctor is completely estranged from their family, as they were assigned female at birth but have spent most of their life living as a man so they could become a surgeon. Even my choice of “they” as a pronoun for Doyle is a judgement that I have made: since the book is in the first person, and Crow never uses a pronoun to refer to the doctor, I have not much to go on in terms of sussing out how Doyle identifies. In this respect, however, I appear to be doing better than Addison, who has written that she doesn’t know how Doyle identifies, either: “The question of Doyle’s sexual identity is a vexed one. You can read Doyle as a trans man, although that term is completely unavailable to the characters, or you can read Doyle as a transvestite lesbian. Or you can read Doyle as profoundly genderqueer (also a term not available to the characters).”
Addison is unfortunately conflating sexuality and gender identity, which are not the same thing (being a trans man is a gender; being a lesbian is a sexuality). Also, the evidence of the text itself argues against the idea that Doyle is a trans man: the doctor still considers their birth names, “Joanna Henrietta” to be their true names, and Doyle tells Mary Morstan flat-out that “I’m not a man” and “I am my father’s only daughter” (p. 227). Nowhere in the text does Doyle state anything like the idea that they were born in the wrong body, or that they’re actually a man, or that “Joanna” does not describe their true self; Doyle tells Crow clearly that “I’m a woman” (p. 228)—though it’s clear that Doyle’s ideas on what constitutes men and women are limited at best. Given the doctor’s evident attraction to Mary Morstan, which she manifestly reciprocates, the idea that Doyle is a lesbian holds more water.
No matter how they identify, it’s clear that Doyle is struggling with a hefty portion of self-loathing; on one case, Doyle observes that “[t]he neighborhood was mostly airship men, whom I supposed to be less likely to take offense at the spectacle of a white woman happily married to a black man. I myself had come to feel Christ’s words about the first stone far too keenly to judge” (p. 238). So passing as a man in society—or as Doyle describes it when drunk, “pretending to be a man” (p. 229)—is a sin? Or interracial marriage is? Or both?
On another occasion, Doyle observes a flock of Nameless outside St. Paul’s Cathedral: “They thronged its steps like pigeons, a great restless ever-shifting flock of men with dull gray suits and glorious wings. I tried to think of them as women and could not, even though I knew myself for a hypocrite” (p. 270). The alleged hypocrisy of the Nameless in Doyle’s view arises from the fact that, as Crow reveals,
“The truth is, you’ve never seen a male Nameless. Or a male angel, for that matter. We’re all female.” My expression was no doubt thunderstruck, for he added, “I did tell you bees were the best analogy.”
“You’re all female,” I said after a moment.
“Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings, yes.”
“But…” I gestured incoherently at his suit, at the suits of the two Nameless at the other end of the car.
“Human beings gives us habitations and names,” said Crow, “and also gender. We become what they expect us to be.” (p. 240)
It’s hard to know how we’re meant to interpret all of this: all we get are Doyle’s thoughts, and Doyle is clearly dealing with some internalized issues. The persistent confusion of asexuality (lack of sexual attraction to others, as Saint Augustine says is the state of the angels, and Crow agrees) with being agender (a refusal of fixed gender identity, on which the sage of Hippo is silent) stands out: the Nameless angels are clearly the latter (and in some senses, according to Crow, angels remain agender even after they accrue names and change their bodies in conformity with humans’ expectations). It shouldn’t need to be said that asexual people have genders; being asexual is not about gender, and being agender or genderqueer, or whatever the angels are, is not about being asexual. Addison seems to think otherwise.
That confusion rears its head again in an extremely awkward scene where Crow offers to have sex with Doyle, who refuses angrily, and who later tells Crow that it would have been rape because, “[i]f you don’t feel sexual desire and someone coerces you into having sexual relations with them, I don’t see how it’s anything other than rape” (p. 229). Sex without consent is rape, of course; but asexual people can and do choose to have sex, notwithstanding their lack of sexual desire, for a variety of reasons—and that is not rape.
The horrific crimes of Jack the Ripper
All of this sits uneasily alongside two of the book’s other notable motifs: the Jack the Ripper murders and the significance of oaths and true names. Oaths are sworn only with care in Addison’s world: there’s something in the aether which makes them a binding with physical consequences, palpable to those who swear them the moment the words are spoken. True names recur here as an important magical lever by which people can be known and influenced. When Doyle tells Crow their true name, it’s a mark of trust; when Crow uses that true name to compel restraint on Doyle’s part when the doctor assumes their hellhound form, it’s a mark of just how deeply Doyle still feels their birth name is a part of them. All of that lends extra significance to the conversation between Crow and Moriarty in which the vampire refers to his friends among the Roma and explains that “[i]t is what they call themselves, and is thus surely to be preferred to ‘gypsies’” (p. 390). It’s not surprising that Crow adopts the term “Roma” immediately; it’s just as notable that Doyle continues to call them “gypsies” (p. 406) even after that. This choice is another indication that Addison’s real innovation in this novel is not making Holmes an angel or Watson a hellhound, but making Watson the asshole in the partnership.
At the same time, the combination of the text’s emphasis on true names with its fascination with body parts, specifically female body parts, makes for some uncomfortable implications. There’s already the business with the angels having female genitalia, and Doyle’s belief in their own hypocrisy related to their female body (and the angels’); but it’s especially notable that when the doctor explains to Crow why marrying Mary Morstan is out of the question, their explanation is that, aside from marriage between two women not being legal, “Most people, when they get married, want to have children. Miss Morstan and I wouldn’t be able to because I don’t have male sexual organs and therefore cannot reproduce with her” (p. 229). Later, Sir Henry Baskerville deduces his way partly through the question of a hellhound’s identity—and comes to the brink of both Doyle’s secrets—on account of the fact that “I saw very clearly that it was a bitch” (p. 373).
The Ripper connection to all this is gruesome. Without going too deeply into Ripperology, the “canonical five” murder victims are distinguished partly by characteristic deep slashing injuries to their abdomens and genitalia; three of the victims had their uteruses removed. (Doyle: “I would guess he took the uterus twice because it’s the most ‘female’ organ” [p. 380].) It doesn’t take a genius independent consulting detective to suspect something related to sex and gender on the killer’s part. As Doyle says:
“Well, he’s clearly a man who hates women. You don’t go after someone with a knife like that unless you either hate them personally or hate something about them so fundamental that it can’t be changed. And since we know it wasn’t a personal motive, or the police would have dug it out, it must be fundamental. And given how he poses them, and how he goes after their lower bodies and wombs, it’s their womanhood he hates. But it fascinates him at the same time. He can’t just leave it alone. He’s trying to find the thing he hates and he can’t.” (pp. 380-81)
As a statement on the psychology of Jack the Ripper, this is fairly convincing. But in the text itself, where this statement sits overall leaves me uneasy. The entire point of the current understanding of sex and gender, in which trans individuals exist and are valid, is that gender can’t be reduced to body parts. But both Jack the Ripper and Doyle don’t seem to know that, which is perhaps unsurprising but is part of the unfortunate fact that The Angel of the Crows shows the limits of just how far it’s possible to subvert the founding Victorian assumptions of the Sherlock Holmes texts without a great deal more effort: they are quite restrictive. This problem recurs elsewhere: Doyle, Mary Morstan, and other characters express distaste for the idea of “theft” in India on the part of its colonizers, but no one questions the existence of the Empire itself. The novel lacks obvious virulent racism, but it does not depict a world of racial equality. Addison tries to queer Holmes and Watson, but the effect is to leave the characters lost in a fog on the moors, where joy is hard to find and queerness is inchoate at best.
None of this is precisely surprising. Fanfic can be a way of turning a text sideways and looking at it from a new angle, but—even if you turn that text inside out—you’re still more often than not left with that text’s bones, albeit in a slightly different arrangement. The Angel of the Crows is ultimately less subversive than is implied at first glance, and—like Sherlock Holmes—we should use our powers of observation to apprehend all of the facts of the case, no matter how trifling, rather than taking them at face value.