Books : reviews

Laurie R. King.
The Beekeper's Apprentice.
HarperCollins. 1994

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 9 November 2002

Mary Russell, a precocious 15-year-old, stumbles over a retired Sherlock Holmes on the South Downs during WWI. The two form an unlikely friendship, and she becomes an apprentice sleuth.

Put like that, it sounds as if it has the potential to be truly appalling. But it works very well indeed (despite the prefaced pretence by the author that this is merely a transcription of the real Mary Russell's journal). Russell is an engaging heroine, smart, and well able to hold her own against Holmes. This is no bumbling Watson, there to throw Holmes' intelligence into sharp relief. Yet it all fits well into all the Holmes mythos (unless, maybe, you are a Baker Street fanatic, but I'm not). The mystery kept me reading, and kept me guessing. The solution appeared to be plucked from thin air, until I thought back over the clues, which had been there all along. Great stuff. I hope the series keeps up this standard.

Laurie R. King.
A Monstrous Regiment of Women.
HarperCollins. 1995

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 14 December 2002

Mary Russell's friend Veronica is involved with a charismatic new religious and political leader. When several wealthy women die, leaving their money to the Cause, Mary starts to investigate. But she has just attained her majority, and has become a wealthy woman herself. Soon her investigation takes a personal turn, and Mary is in danger of losing her academic reputation, her sanity, and her very life.

A curious blend of theology, feminism, and drug abuse, this second Mary Russell novel is more thriller than detective story, but just as enthralling as the first. (And the well chosen chapter heading quotations are enough to make one's blood boil!)

Laurie R. King.
A Letter of Mary.
HarperCollins. 1996

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 7 January 2003

By this third volume of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, the two detectives are married. Into their domestic bliss -- or more accurately, semi-boredom -- comes an old friend they met in Palestine, who presents them with an amazing manuscript, and then is promptly murdered. (As in all such stories, it never does to be the friend of a detective.) So off go the detective pair to find out who the murderer is, and what the motive is. Red herrings abound, and their investigation is shown in some detail. I suspect it's that detail that has made me drop the rating for this volume slightly -- it seems to slightly misbalance the plot, although it is necessary for part of the character development.

At one point we get an amusing interlude with someone who is obviously -- although never explicitly identified as -- Lord Peter Wimsey. (The characterisation is good, but it does rather detract from the conceit that these stories are merely being transcribed by King from Russell's own manuscripts -- unless Sayers was also supposedly writing about real people?) And there are certain interesting parallels between Mary Russell and Harriet Vane that one can read between the lines here.

Laurie R. King.
The Moor.
Bantam. 1998

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 17 January 2003

This case takes place barely a few months after the events of A Letter of Mary, and Mary Russell is still feeling the strain of investigating the death of her friend. Holmes calls her to Dartmoor, to help solve a case of a new hound on the moor, possibly linked with a killing.

We get a clever interweaving of the original Hound of the Baskervilles story, along with a new case set thirty years later, with lots of acid comments from Holmes about the way Conan Doyle wrote up the original. There is a real feeling of place -- the bleak and desolate moor, and why people might love it nonetheless.

As in the previous books, the team of Holmes and Russell often investigate different aspects of the case in parallel, focussing on Mary's viewpoint. So rather than being simply a Holmes pastiche, this is a story mainly of Mary, with a bit of Holmes. And Mary Russell is a very good character in her own right. I think this is what makes the books work for me.

Laurie R. King.
O Jerusalem.
Bantam. 1999

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 9 April 2003

At one point during the tale of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Holmes and Russell flee to Palestine for a while, to throw their pursuer off the scent. This is the tale of what happens to them there. It is early 1919, at the end of the Great War, and everything is in turmoil as the British attempt to bring some kind of order to the newly liberated Palestine. Holmes and Russell turn up in the middle of this, sent there at Mycroft's behest, but not very welcomed by his agents. Nevertheless, Holmes soon sniffs out a mysterious murder, and sets off to investigate.

Like The Moor, this has a tremendous feeling of place. The desert is beautifully and lovingly depicted, as is Mary's beloved Jerusalem. I could almost feel the heat, and the sand between my toes. There is not a lot of detection, but there is a lot of history, and language, and action, and fascinating detail.

Laurie R. King.
Justice Hall.
Bantam. 2002

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 14 April 2003

Holmes and Russell are only just back home from their investigation on The Moor when they are asked to help an old friend, in very different circumstances from when they first knew him. They are willing to help, but don't even know if there is a case to be investigated. So they keep poking around, until a thread appears. And pretty soon, everything starts unravelling untidily.

Another interesting excursion into history, as we get to see life a few years after the First World War, and the War itself in retrospect, as the detectives try to track down what really happened five years earlier. The discovery of the real villain is helped by a big coincidence, but there are some good scenes, fun moments, and traumatic events, along the way.

Laurie R. King.
The Game.
Bantam. 2004

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 24 March 2005

Holmes and Russell are sent off to India to investigate the possibility that Kimball O'Hara (immortalised in Kipling's Kim) might still be alive. But when they arrive, they discover more worrying events to investigate, which requires them to go undercover as travelling magicians, and risk the wrath of a local sport-mad marharajah. Mary even ends up impersonating her own non-existent twin brother!

More fun with history, with place, and with weaving fictional characters into the story. Both the boat trip to India, and the various modes of travel through the country, are described in rich vivid detail. Again, little detection: this is more a gentle spy thriller, but is still great fun.

Laurie R. King.
Locked Rooms.
Bantam. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 26 August 2006

After their adventures in India, Russell and Holmes set off for San Francisco (by way of an as yet undocumented adventure in Japan). Russell needs to go to America to take care of her estate there, but is plagued by bad dreams that seem to indicate that she was there during the great earthquake and fire of 1906, despite her having no memory of it. Once she arrives back at her childhood home, a series of strange events indicate that she needs to find out what happened, both in 1906, and in 1914, when her family were killed in a car crash. Russell is initially devastated, both by her dreams, and the shocks that are uncovered by the investigation, leaving Holmes to carry on alone. But she soon rallies, and the pair sort out the problem, with the help of a few interesting characters along the way.

A fun view of San Francisco during the flapper era, and some intriguing puzzles bringing to life events from long ago, make this an interesting extension to the series. There are also several chapters from Holmes' point of view, which add to the interest this time around.

Laurie R. King.
The Language of Bees.
Allison and Busby. 2009

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 29 August 2010

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are just back home in Surrey after their adventures in India and San Francisco, when Damian Adler, a man from Holmes' past, appears, asking for their help in tracking down his missing wife and child. This leads to a frantic race to solve the puzzle before Adler is arrested, or killed.

A great mix of detection, Bohemian artists, and sinister religious cults, with a hefty dose of Mycroft, and lots of breaking and entering, to spice up the mix. There is a great feeling of temporal place, with Mary being somewhat shocked by Bohemian decadence, despite her own unconventional lifestyle. What I like about this is the quiet competence and independence of the main character, coupled with her lack of histrionics over her husband's similar independence.

The ending resolves the main issue, but leaves a whopping "to be continued" for the next book.

Laurie R. King.
The God of the Hive.
Allison and Busby. 2010

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 14 August 2011

This is a direct continuation of the events in The Language of Bees, as Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes scrabble to keep themselves safe and clear Damian Adler's name before Lestrade's arrest warrants catch up with them. They are separated again, on the run, with a seemingly all-powerful enemy matching their every step. Even the seemingly omnipotent Mycroft Holmes may be outmatched.

Here we have a multi-viewpoint story -- Russell, Holmes, Mycroft, and the Enemy -- which makes for rather fragmented reading. It does allow for multiple cliffhangers, although King cheats a couple of times. There's also a massive coincidence moving part of the plot forward. But the enemy is sufficiently clever and well-placed to pose a real threat. There's not a lot of detection, just using detecting skills to evade capture. But as usual it's the filling in of the backstory -- this time mostly of Mycroft (including a cheeky understated foreshadowing about his signature) -- that forms a goodly chunk of the book.

This time the story really ends -- as much as one with ongoing characters can "end".

Laurie R. King.
Pirate King.
Bantam. 2011

rating : 4.5 : passes the time
review : 26 January 2014

In England’s young silent film industry, the megalomaniacal Randolph Fflytte is king. But rumors of criminal activities swirl around his popular movie studio. At the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell travels undercover to the set of Fflytte’s latest cinematic extravaganza, Pirate King. Based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, the project will either set the standard for moviemaking for a generation … or sink a boatload of careers.

As the company starts rehearsals in Lisbon, the thirteen blond-haired, blue eyed actresses whom Mary is chaperoning meet the swarm of real buccaneers Fflytte has recruited to provide authenticity. But when the crew embarks for Morocco and the actual filming, Russell senses ominous currents of trouble: a derelict boat, a film crew with many secrets, decks awash with budding romance—and now the pirates are ignoring Fflytte and answering only to their outlaw leader. Where can Sherlock Holmes be? As movie make-believe becomes true terror, Russell and Holmes themselves may experience a final fadeout.

Mary Russell is persuaded to investigate strange goings-on with a film company, rather than suffer a prolonged visit from her brother-in-law, Mycroft. She gets a job as an assistant with the film company, only to find herself travelling to Lisbon with the cast of a new film, and thence to Morocco, with further actors who are not what they seem.

This is somewhat disappointing. I suspect the trip to Lisbon, and the antics of the film crew and actors, are supposed to be amusing, but I found them rather tedious. Things get a little more exciting once the group arrive in Morocco, but even then, the denoument all seem to be rather too easy. And the original detection, that problem with the film company, is all resolved in about a line or two.

The rather slim novel is augmented with a short story: “Beekeeping for Beginnners”. This tells the tale of how Russell and Holmes first met, as also told in The Beekeper's Apprentice, but here from Holmes’ view point. There is an extra adventure that Russell was never aware of.

Laurie R. King.
Garment of Shadows.
Allison & Busby. 2012

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 17 August 2015

In a strange room in Morocco, Mary Russell is trying to solve a pressing mystery: Who am I? She has awakened with shadows in her mind, blood on her hands, and soldiers pounding at the door. She is clothed like a man, and armed only with her wits and a scrap of paper showing a mysterious symbol. Overhead, warplanes pass ominously north.

Meanwhile, her husband Sherlock Holmes is pulled into the growing war between France, Spain, and the Rif Revolt. He badly wants the wisdom and courage of his wife, whom he discovers, to his horror, has gone missing. As Holmes searches for her, and Russell searches for herself, each tries to crack deadly parallel puzzles before its too late for them, for Africa, and for the peace of Europe.

Mary Russell wakes up alone, with amnesia, in danger. Using only her considerable native wit, she escapes her predicament, determined to discover what has happened to her. Sherlock Holmes soon joins his amnesiac wife, and together they need to unlock her memories to stop a war.

This story continues on directly from the previous adventure with the film crew, but is much better: no heavy-handed humour, and Russell and Holmes working together for a lot of the time. This has a good sense of place and time, and the political situation is gradually revealed along with Russell's slowly returning memory. Naturally, her memory returns as needed to advance the plot, but that is no different from a more traditional uncovering of clues.

I do miss the less-political, more crime-driven, detective tales of the earlier entries in the series, though. Those allowed a more interesting relationship between the main characters, when the fate of the world was not at stake.

As in Pirate King, this printing includes the novella “Beekeeping for Beginnners”, so the main book finishes 50 pages earlier than the reader might expect.

Laurie R. King.
Dreaming Spies.
Allison & Busby. 2015

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 2 May 2021

Returning to their tranquil Sussex home, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes discover a beautiful rock mysteriously planted in the flower bed – a rock they last saw in the emperor’s garden Tokyo. Perhaps the dangerous investigation they carried out for him might not be as complete as they had thought?

One year earlier, Russell and Holmes board the Thomas Carlyle bound for California with a visit to Japan on the way. A holiday, they think – but intrigue raises its head when a fellow passenger agrees to tutor the couple in her native language and customs. Young Miss Haruki Sato, they begin to suspect, is not who she claims to be. From the winding lanes of Oxford to the palaces of Japan, the ingenious duo embark on an utterly compelling adventure of politics and espionage.

Between The Game and Locked Rooms, Holmes and Russell went to Japan; this is that tale. It is in two parts: first a travelogue on the boat from India to Japan, and then across Japan, with a momentous meeting and blackmail attempt, followed by a portion back in Oxford later, when the blackmail rears its head again.

This is curiously dull, despite the gorgeous details. Not a lot happens (although the consequences could be extreme), and Holmes and Russell twice fail to save the day, being outwitted at every turn. They do get to learn the Japanese language and culture, however.

Laurie R. King.
The Murder of Mary Russell.
Allison & Busby. 2016

Mary Russell is used to dark secrets – her own, and those of her famous partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes. But what about the secrets of the third member of the Holmes household: Mrs. Hudson? When a man arrives on the doorstep Russell cannot help but believe the revelations he has about their beloved housekeeper, just as she believes the threat of the gun in his hand.

When a frantic Sherlock Holmes discovers the scene left behind – a pool of blood on the floor, the smell of gunpowder in the air – the grim clues point directly to Clara Hudson. There is death here, and murder, and trust betrayed. And nothing will ever be the same.

Laurie R. King.
Mary Russell's War.
Allison & Busby. 2016

Laurie R. King illuminates the hidden comers of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’s world in this beguiling short story collection. With King’s beloved brand of crime fiction blended together with historical treats and narrative sleight of hand, we read from a teenage Mary’s wartime diary, learn more of Holmes’s marriage proposal and of Mycroft Holmes’s political activities, and follow Mary though a series of postcards as she searches for her missing husband.

A richly illustrated and fascinating feast for fans and new readers alike, this collection lifts the lid on many untold stones from Russell and Holmes’s past.

Laurie R. King.
Island of the Mad.
Allison & Busby. 2018

June, 1925. A rare peaceful evening is cut short when Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes receive a frantic phone call from on old friend. Veronica’s aunt, Lady Vivian Beaconsfield, has vanished following a supervised outing from Bethlem Royal Hospital. Her adult life has been largely spent in and out of asylums – so why disappear now? And why is there no trace of the nurse who accompanied her?

In their search for the missing women, Russell and Holmes follow the trail from the cold, harsh hospital wards through Europe to the ethereal beauty of Venice. Caught up in decadent soirées, the rising tide of fascism and the myth of a haunted madhouse, the pair will discover that there are secrets hidden in the lagoon – and that every Venetian wears a mask…

Laurie R. King.
Riviera Gold.
Allison & Busby. 2020

It’s summertime on the Riviera, where the Jazz Age is busily reinventing the holiday delights of warm days on golden sand and cool nights on terraces and dance floors.

Along the coast lies a more traditional pleasure ground: Monte Carlo, where fortunes are won, lost, stolen and hidden away. So when Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes happen across the Côte d’Azur in this summer of 1925, they find themselves pulled between the young and the old, hot sun and cool jazz, new friendships and old loyalties, childlike pleasures and very grown-up sins…

Laurie R. King.
Castle Shade.
Allison & Busby. 2021

Queen Marie of Roumania, granddaughter to both Victoria, Empress of the British Empire, and Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, is in need of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ services. The Queen, a famous beauty who has transformed Roumania from a quiet backwater into a significant force, invites the pair to Bran castle, the ancient fortress that sits on the border with the newly regained territory of Transylvania.

The threat the Queen fears is dubious: shadowy figures, vague whispers, dangers that may only be accidents. But a young girl is involved. So, putting aside their doubts, Russell and Holmes set out to investigate the mystery in a land of long memory and hidden corners, from whose churchyards the shades creep.