After she read my first mystery novel, my agent at the time chastised me because I waited too deep into the book before I killed my victim. Do it right in the beginning was her command. So, even though I disagreed with her advice, when I started the next book I killed my victim in the first sentence.
All of this was running back through my mind as I read Laurie R. King’s newest book in the Mary Russell – Sherlock Holmes series, Dreaming Spies.
King kills her victim on page 214. Bravo, I thought. You must have a very understanding agent.
King started the Russell-Holmes series in 1994 with the publication of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I had picked up the first book because its Holmes connection caught my eye. Authors’ writing newly discovered fiction about Sherlock Holmes remains a popular pastime. The writer just happens to find an old manuscript, which lo and behold, is a lost story about a previously unknown case involving the famous detective or Dr. Watson or even brother Mycroft. If you know of one where Mrs. Hudson solves the crime, let me know.
His creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, is dead, but new stories continue to be written about Sherlock Holmes, the detective he made world famous.
King’s new take on the old tale is that Sherlock Holmes should get married, and she marries him off to Mary Russell, a woman whom he meets in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice when she is a fifteen year old schoolgirl and he is in his fifties. They wed in the second book in the series.
Mary Russell is a thoroughly modern twentieth century woman. I like strong female heroines, but I’ve chosen not to write stories with women solving crimes in anything but contemporary times.
I admire feisty women, but I don’t like when their feistiness takes over the story which tends to happen when their character is living in earlier times. Women were always fighting gender prejudice. Any demonstrations of their intelligence and analytical abilities often met with scorn.
In the King books Mary Russell, who takes center stage in front of Sherlock Holmes, manages to use her mind and challenge the establishment, all without becoming irritatingly predictable when she does. Mary is not an easy character to pull off, but I think King does her well.
What I also enjoy in the Russell-Holmes novels, which now number fourteen, is their attention to setting. These stories take the reader all over the world, including some very exotic destinations.
Setting, in my humble view, is a very underrated component in mystery books. Mystery authors must have a plot which results in a crime. Characters become the victims and suspects. Where the story is set is important, but rarely dominates the book.
Dreaming Spies, after a preamble, kicks off on an ocean voyage from India to Japan where Holmes and Russell (they call each other by their last names) are going for a much-needed rest. Their cases tend to put them regularly in physical danger, and believe me, they need this rest.
Naturally the novel wouldn’t have been written if all the couple gets is a quiet vacation at sea and no case to solve. But what I appreciated, as noted earlier, is the long wait to get to the murder and the ‘let’s get busy solving this crime’ action which must ensue.
As the story of Dreaming Spies unfolds, King supplies us with rich and languid descriptions of the oceanic steamship, the rhythm of the voyage and Mary’s reflections. The culture of their final destination, Japan, is nicely explained through one of the main characters. I learned a lot about a country I’ve never visited.
I once heard a panelist at a mystery writers’ conference say that today’s trend is not to write a book about a murder, but to write a story where a murder takes place. After reading Dreaming Spies, I can appreciate the difference.