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“the vampire was not necessarily a dead man” [SUSS]

On the periphery of Sherlockiana, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward comes from the world of literary mash-up. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys hypothetical scenarios like “what if Mina Harker’s daughter met Tarzan, and Carmilla of vampiric fame, on the RMS Titanic,” then this delightful short novel will not be your cup of tea. If such a scenario, peppered with figures historical as well as literary, piques your interest, then you won't be disappointed.

The Sherlockian connection is slight, but important. The main character is Lucy Harker, daughter of Mina and the product of Dracula’s attentions before he was staked. Mina and Jonathan Harker are now divorced. Mycroft Holmes, of all people, becomes Lucy’s stepfather. Ms. Ward briefly acknowledges the apparent absurdity of this with a recalled comment by Lucy’s unnamed but instantly recognizable step uncle. He disparages Mycroft's falling in love, to a divorced victim of a vampire no less, but later appears to harbor some affection of his own for his new niece. The Holmes men are, after all, still human. And, if you are the less than charitable type, you can always assume Mycroft married Mina Harker just to mold her half-vampire daughter into an ideal secret agent.

The story starts in London, 1912. The events described in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds are historical fact, and Britain has benefitted greatly from its appropriation of Martian technology. An officer carrying plans for the fabled Nautilus is on his way back to America aboard the new steamer Titanic, and the British government wants to make sure the plans arrive safely. Lucy Harker is chosen for the job, as she is a capable spy and her half-vampiric heritage gives her advantages over mere mortals. Naturally, things go somewhat awry.

Also on board are a thinly veiled version of Lord Greystoke, a.k.a Tarzan, who is more than happy to voice his opinions on the hypocrisies of “civilized” society, and the Countess Karnstein, who is clearly based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire, Carmilla. There are also a pair of German soldiers, whose conversations foreshadow the ‘pure race’ sentiments of the future Nazi party. The mystery itself is basic, and the conclusion dramatic. Much of the story centers around Lucy’s inner reflections on herself, her country and society, to a point where the mission is almost just background scenery. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's different from what I expected. When the climax of the case happened, it was almost a surprise reminder that there was a mission involved in the first place. Predictably, history runs its course. As War of the Worlds taught us, Earth doesn’t like aliens. They aren’t a match for our microbes, and their technology won’t stop an iceberg.

Ultimately, this is a love story between a female secret agent and a suicidal vampire, and a character study in feminism and being a woman in a patriarchal society. Though she constantly chafes under the condescension she must endure from men she could literally tear apart, Lucy is so convinced of the men who control her life being right that she never questions the evidence before her eyes until an ‘unrefined’ woman (none other than the unsinkable Molly Brown) who isn’t afraid of bucking societal conventions and speaking her mind tells her what’s what. There's a wonderful moment where Lucy remembers her step uncle’s lesson never to theorize before the facts, which ultimately leads to the realization that most of her life has been based on non-factual theories that women are the weaker sex, and that vampires are by necessity evil.

The book’s ending is wide open for a sequel, with plenty of potential for more figures of legend to meet. Ms. Ward has done a wonderful job setting up her world, and the future challenges her characters will have to face. Of course, if a concerned step uncle were to make more of an appearance, that'd be excellent, but just knowing he's there along with the whole literary universe in the background is good fun too.

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess is available on Kindle and in print.