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It's a Mystery: Irene Adler R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knows how to grab our attention. He does it right out of the gate in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which begins with the line, “To Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman.”

The woman. We learn that she is Irene Adler, an opera singer and adventuress and the consort of aristocratic men throughout Europe. The case that introduces her to us comes when the future King of Bohemia asks for Sherlock’s help.

Seems that he had an affair with Ms. Adler five years earlier, and this scandalous tryst—scandal only because of the strict rules of propriety that govern his culture—could endanger his upcoming marriage to the young princess of Scandinavia. The problem? There are letters and a photo that could possibly ruin the upcoming nuptials. Twice his henchmen have tried to get the photo, and Irene has outsmarted them each time.

Sherlock hatches a clever plan and recruits his good friend Dr. Watson—now married, but bored because his wife is traveling. Costumes are rigged and a false emergency is staged. (This is Victorian English literature, remember, and great fun.) Finally, the day arrives for Sherlock to get his hands on the photo when—well, I won’t tell you, except that Irene Adler saw through the whole charade, derailed the plan, and even managed to run off and get married. It was quite an afternoon.

So the woman, Irene Adler. She gives Sherlock a run for his money. Conan Doyle never writes about her again, although Sherlock does mention being bested once by “a woman” in other stories.

Literature fans have been unable to leave Ms. Adler as a mere supporting character. Since 1891 she has made cultural appearances since: in reboots, she has been expanded as Sherlock’s lover, she has reunited with him after his staged death, she herself has worked as a detective, she’s been a thief and a femme fatale, and she has even been murdered by Dr. Moriarty simply to punish Sherlock. None of these incarnations were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Purists complain that these adaptations and extensions of the Irene Adler character do not “get her right,” that they misunderstand the cunning and wit of the original character. And many say she should remain precisely where her author left her: In one truly fun Sherlock Holmes episode. To that I would say, relax. I see the Irene Adler character is a cultural itch that needs scratching. She is a character that readers have craved since the 19th century, if not earlier.

Aretha Franklin knows what I am talking about. Irene Adler is so satisfying because she gets away with the one thing all women really want: respect. She is the woman because her peers admire her wit and grace.

Irene bears the weight of our literary projections. Yes, we crave romantic interests, even for our cold, calculating and strange detectives ruled by reason. But more than that, we crave strong female lead characters. It’s a compliment to Conan Doyle that fans the world over have taken up the Irene Adler story and carried it forward. How fun—to be scandalous, free of inhibition, and not only get away with it, but to brag to the men trying to better you that you have gotten away with it, right under their noses. May Irene Adler live on.

This is Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten of Lawrence inviting you to join us for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club series, “It’s a Mystery to Me!” Find more at hppr.org or like us on Facebook.