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Write On Ottawa: A Study in Aether is a Sherlock Holmes story for a new generation

By Gloria Song on January 3, 2017

There have been numerous interesting takes on Sherlock Holmes in recent years, including the British TV series Sherlock, the films featuring Robert Downey Jr., and the American TV show Elementary.

study-ebook-cover-186x300Fans of Sherlock Holmes mysteries may want to check out Ottawa-based writer Eric Desmarais’ new novel A Study in Aether from Renaissance Book Press, for a new modern day twist on the classic mystery series, this time from the point of view of a teenage female protagonist, ninth grader Elizabeth Coderre.

The novel is peppered with multiple intentional references to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary works, including Elizabeth’s school, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle High School. Events take place in the fictional Baker City (a nod to Sherlock’s Baker Street residence, of course), where the residents have decided to adopt a Sherlock theme to increase tourism. It’s no surprise then that such a setting would attract mysterious happenings, starting with the disappearance of a teenage girl at the aptly named Moriarity Point Beach. It’s up to Elizabeth, a huge Sherlock mystery fan herself, to solve the strange disappearances that none of the adults seem to be noticing.

At the same time while solving these mysteries, Elizabeth must also juggle navigating high school, making new friends, and trying not to hate gym class – all daunting feats on their own. As a result, the book captures in detail the various anxieties and excitement of adolescence that many of us have forgotten, like asking your crush to the school dance. The most fun parts, of course, are all the investigating of secret passageways, forming of mystery solving gang (don’t we all wish we’d had a mystery-solving gang as kids?), and uncovering ancient secrets – all the elements that capture our imagination.

The book does a good job of building a mystery, as the seemingly normal town is hit with stranger and stranger events, like packs of adorable kittens with sharp teeth and bloody faces. There is a constant impatient sense of a conspiracy being covered up, as residents keep disappearing but nobody seems to care. As Elizabeth’s sidekick points out, “In every story I’ve read, the parents never believe what’s going on till it’s too late.” The book captures the common fears of young people: telling an adult about something and not being believed, or facing a dangerous situation that everyone else ignores.

I particularly appreciated the strong female lead Elizabeth. She isn’t an exact replica of the aloof, calculating oddball Sherlock. Instead she is empathic, brave, and resourceful, despite her young age. She is accompanied by her best friend Jackie who complements her as a crime-solving partner, and the two maintain a purely platonic friendship, which is a refreshing change from many young adult novels that are centered around the boy getting the girl.

A Study in Aether is a coming-of-age tale with a bit of witchcraft thrown in, set in a quirky asynchronous time period where teens do have blogs and camera phones and laugh at old people still using FourSquare, but also visit book stores for the smell of print books, write in cursive, look up phone numbers in phone books, and visit the librarian to get information. It’s almost a nostalgic look at our own adolescence, filtered with modern day pop culture and technology – and some good old-fashioned magic.

A Study in Aether is available in paperback and e-book from Renaissance Book Press, or ask for it at your local independent bookstore!