I’d like to introduce what I hope will be a regular feature here at Lamplight & Ink: Dissecting a Debut. These posts will be similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.
I’ve been on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately, working my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original serials. So it’s probably no surprise that I was drawn to this particular debut novel, Secret Letters by Leah Scheier, which follows the adventures of Dora Joyce, who has reason to believe that her biological father is the Sherlock Holmes.
Genre: YA Mystery
Page count: 336
Pub Date: 6/26/12
Agent: Irene Kraas
In Brief: Dora accompanies her cousin, who is being blackmailed over old love letters, to see Sherlock Holmes about recovering the letters, and secretly about her mother’s dying message that Holmes is Dora’s true father. But when newspapers reveal that Holmes is dead, Dora takes on the case herself alongside her new detective ally, Peter Cartwright, whose kidnapping case is entwined with Dora’s top blackmail suspect.
Sherlock Holmes has been re-cast in fiction so many times he’s practically his own genre. To tackle a new perspective of the famous investigator is perhaps not terribly original in concept, but there’s a certain challenge to breaking in fresh ground on a well-traveled path. Many people have written about Sherlock’s lovers, Sherlock in modern day, Sherlock as an animal, but Sherlock’s daughter, as far as I know, is a completely new character.
If I had come across this novel as a submission, that new take on an old favorite would have piqued my interest from the get go. But Scheier has added to that a pretty complex plot, an excellent YA heroine, a bit of budding romance, and some nice historical touches about manners and propriety in nineteenth-century London.
I appreciate how similar the writing form and the detective work are to the original Sherlock series — it’s clear that Scheier did her homework. But she also truly made it her own. Dora’s character is an eerily observant 14-year-old girl who’s not quite ready to take on life but finds herself knee-deep in it, and like most good YA heroines, she makes some mistakes, gets a little ahead of herself, and in the end understands a little more about the world, and what kind of choices her parents had to make. Scheier wrote a really useful post over at First Novels Club on how to create human heroines.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write a short story where Sherlock Holmes must track down a blackmailer to save a lady’s honor just before her wedding, but the reader never meets the lady in question and the blackmailer is murdered by a former victim before Holmes can steal the letters. This may have been Scheier’s inspiration, but with the added kidnapping plot, the antics of the intriguing and slightly mysterious sidekick, Peter Cartwright, and Dora’s efforts to overcome the secrets of her own past, Secret Letters has a life of its own.
From what I can tell, Scheier does not have an MFA, or a long record of short story publications. She’s a pediatrician who wrote book reviews on her LiveJournal and hid a novel under her bed. She mentions that this book went through a lot of edits once she found an editor, because it was initially written as an adult novel, not YA. Notice that she has crafted her website as a place to promote her book; this self-promotion is key for almost any author now, especially a debut author.
Scheier is working on a sequel to Secret Letters, and she just finished another YA novel set in present-day Baltimore. She’s sets a good example on writing fan-fiction and allowing yourself to be inspired by someone else’s work (be it a book, a painting, a poem) while still making it your own. She was flexible with her editor, and the final product was a well-crafted commercial YA novel.