Iain's Leisure Reading

Laurie R King - The Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes Series

Well over a year ago, in "The Works" bookshop chain, I chanced upon a series of books by an American author then unknown to me - Laurie R. King. I was intrigued by her concept - it's 1915, and a young 15 year old American orphan by the name of Mary Russell is being looked after by an aunt on a farm in the UK Sussex Downs, goes for a walk, and bumps into none other than the great Sherlock Holmes. I knew from the Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes series that Sherlock had indeed "retired" to the Sussex Downs to tend bees. The books were in a "three for a fiver" offer, so I bought the first three books in the series, and put them on my "books waiting to be read" shelf. I was then reading and enjoying the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I though I had better finish these before looking at what Laurie R King had to say.

Laurie King was born in 1952 in Oakland, California. In 1977 she graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in comparative theology. The same year she married the historian Noel Quinton King, and they had two children, Zoe and Nathan. Sadly Noel died in early 2009. Laurie now lives in Watsonville, still in California.

Laurie is an award winning author who has not only penned the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series, but has also written books under the pseudonym "Leigh Richards".

I think I sort of sit on the fence over the ethics of one author adopting / or is it pinching another author's character. I have enjoyed R.H.Wingfield's DI Frost novels both under the original author, and also as recreated by James Henry. Henry's Frost is less coarse, and more like the character in the UK TV series. On the other hand Sue Grafton , who knew she was dying of cancer, made it clear that she wanted her character Kinsey Millhone to die with her, and I think her wishes should be respected. Obviously, if a well loved character is recreated by another author and trashed, then that is wrong. But perhaps it's OK for a gifted author to recreate another's character if its done well, and sympathetically. As I said, I am not sure.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice     (1994)

I read this book in May, 2018.

It's always exciting to start reading a new book series - will it be fair, average, good, or excellent ? I then knew little of the author Laurie R King, nor her heroine young Mary Russell, but I had been intrigued by the blurb on the back cover. So it's 1915, the great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and studying honey bees on the Sussex Downs, when a 15 year old young women literally stumbles into him. Mary Russell is gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, but she has a keen intellect, a wit to match his own, and she impresses Sherlock. The book sets up the chance encounter very well. Mary has inherited a farm nearby, but she and her guardian aunt do not get on well, and the aunt seems to be trying to starve Mary into submission. Having mistaken Mary for a young lad, a bemused Sherlock invites Mary back for tea, and faithful Mrs Hudson, still looking after Holmes, feeds the famished lass. Sherlock himself has not been bothering with food, but out of politeness he joins in the meal, gets nourished, and finds a new interest in life that he had never contemplated. They seem to be good for each other. And so begins a great, unlikely friendship, but the exact nature of the friendship is unclear. Partly it's teacher / pupil, partly it's father / daughter, but I detected hints, in spite of their age difference, that something stronger than friendship might even be even be a possibility. But I guess I am jumping ahead wildly.

The Sherlock that we meet is true to Conan Doyle's character, but has been updated somewhat, and has a more rounded, caring gentler character. Yes, he is still governed by fierce logic, but he is comforting too when the occasion calls for compassion and understanding. He is in his early fifties, perhaps younger than we might have expected. This is explained as Watson adding years to Sherlock to add gravitas to his stories. We meet Watson also. Watson is presented as the salt of the earth, and a brave and true friend to Sherlock, but a bit bumbling, and only of average intellect. He was always amazed at Holmes feats of logic, but Mary Russell equals Holmes in intelligence and is less dazzled by the great detective. In one section of the book Watson rushes to an in hiding Holmes, and shaves off his moustache so that he will not be recognised and followed, but he carries his doctor's bag through the streets of London - a dead give away. Mary would never make such a mistake.

The book is split into sections as Mary becomes first apprentice to Holmes, and then enters an internship, and then an associate partnership. Holmes sets puzzles for the young Mary, and each one she solves with distinction. Truly, here is a great intellect. Mary develops into young womanhood almost without Holmes noticing. On a joint mission, Holmes is darkening his new assistant's skin as night time camouflage. "Take off your shirt" says Holmes, and unthinkingly Mary starts to comply when Watson coughs, and Holmes realises what he has said - how inappropriate. It is 1918 after all !

Mary hates her aunt who is stealing from her, but Holmes funds young Mary (with Mrs Hudson keeping a tally ) until Mary comes into her inheritance in adulthood, when every last penny will be repaid with interest. Mary goes to Oxord in 1918, studies theology (as did Laurie King), makes new friends, and even has some fun - using disguise techniques learned from Holmes in a famous prank. But Mary and Holmes are soon reunited.

Initially I started off having doubts about this book when I feared it might just be a collection of short stories lacking in depth. It paints a good picture of the place and time - war time London, but I thought perhaps Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books did it better. But when Mary and Sherlock embark on longer adventures the book improves impressively. Holmes creates a diversion, and Mary has enough self confidence to deviate from the plan, and rescue a kidnapped American senator's very young daughter. Mary has suffered in childhood too, and is later able to comfort the upset little girl in a sisterly sort of way. The brilliant master mind behind the kidnap plot sets out to get revenge on Holmes and Mary, and seems so familiar with Holmes thinking that Holmes is being bettered. Holmes and Mary decide on a tactical retreat and escape the country with help from Mycroft Holmes. Whilst abroad Mary and Sherlock work on a project of national importance. From a list of possible bolt holes, Mary had chosen Palestine. We learn that Mary is a Jew, and she is greatly moved to be able to walk the holy lands. She quotes Hebrew scripture, sings a Hebrew poem that perfectly fits the occasion, and Holmes is struck by his new assistant's hidden depth. Laurie King returns to their adventures in the Holy Land in a later book O Jerusalem < this link won't work until I have read the book !

It's part of Holmes' plan to return to the UK and unmask the master mind, that Holmes and Russell quarrel violently and publicly and say some very harsh, wounding words to each other. In private, Mary is so ill, confused and distraught by the cruel words Sherlock hurls at her, that Holmes secretely slips into her cabin to sit there for a few minutes each night as a comforting presence for Mary. It's becoming deeper than just friendship. Earlier in their exile Holmes and Mary had played chess, and Mary had bested Holmes by sacrificing a White Queen, to mount an overlooked pawn checkmate attack. "You sometime have to sacrifice the Queen to win the game", Mary explains. Holmes goes pale at the alternative explanation of what Mary has said - has Mary to be sacrificed ?

I think I have said enough - it's never my intension to write a spoiler. All in all, a very interesting and promising start to this new series - I hope Laurie King can sustain it.

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A Monstrous Regiment of Women     (1995)

I read this book in Jun, 2018.

This is book two in the Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes series. I started reading the series because I was struck by how preposterous the whole set up was. Mary Russell, a wealthy orphan heiresss, 15 years old, wanders the Sussex Downs, and bumps into the great man. She impresses Sherlock, becomes his apprentice, and he teaches all she knows. She is a brilliant pupil, and they tackle cases together. Theirs is s strange relationship - father/ daughter, teacher/ pupil, but already a suggestion of something more.

In book two, Mary is almost 21, and about to come into her inheritance. She is a theology graduate of Oxford. Holmes is 59 - surely too great an age gap for a conventional romance. Russell is disguised as a young lad, and having an adventure in London with Holmes. He could hardly hang around with a young woman - how shocking ! So Mary speculates about marrying Holmes. That would solve their problems at a stroke - and no more problems for Mary when, disguised as a lad, she wanted to "spend a penny". The problem is solved by the end of the book.

The book does have substance. Mary is a Jewish femininst, and she wants to publish her work on the female characteristics of God. Male translators of the orioginal Greek or Hebrew, deliberately got this wrong. She also says "man" meaning mankind, is usually only translated as "man," the male of the species. She translates one passage as a female god writhing in agony to give birth to Eve - a very different translation.

When in London, Mary meets her old chum from her Oxford days, Lady Veronica, and through her she comes across the New Temple Of God, and their suffragette, charismatic and mystic leader, Margery Childe. But Margery lives a life of great opulence, and drinks the finest of wines. She heads a wealthy organisation. It does do undoubted good, educates the poor, feeds the hungry, and provides a shelter for abused women. Mary is impressed by Margery, but wary. She wants to help, and share her feminist ideas. But wealthy benefactors are being killed once they have changed their will in favour of the "New Temple". Is Margery behind this ? How could she not be ?

Mary sets herself up as a potential wealthy donor, is captured, and injected daily with heroin to make her an addict / suicidal. Whilst held captive, Mary works out that her feelings for Sherlock are, strange as it may seem, love. She is in love with Sherlock Holmes ! Holmes is slow in discovering that Mary is missing, but then is distraught. He too has feelings for Mary. Holmes rescues Mary, and knows how best to wean her off heroin.

We also have Lady Veronica being attacked, moved to a safe location, and being cared for by her former fiance.

All in all, a good story, and I don't mind the feminist bible stories - they are kept in the background.

It's all well done, and very readable. Apart from anything else, it's also nice to meet Holmes, Mycroft, and Mrs Hudson once again.

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A Letter of Mary     (1997)

I read this book in Oct, 2018.

This is book three in the unlikely Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes series. It's a series that should not really be as good as it is - it's based on a preposterous idea that a gifted young American orphan girl chances upon a "retired" Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs, impresses him with her spirit and intellect, becomes his pupil, then goes off to Oxford, then becomes his detective partner, and finally his wife. The Holmes of these books is the same Holmes, but has softened and is no longer driven only by logic. They have both genuinely fallen in love, in spite of their age difference, and there are lots of touching scenes where each longs for each other's company and wants only to please the other. None of Holmes's powers has dimmed, but now we have two formidable brains tackling each problem. And Mary Russell is her own person - a strong willed, feminist, Jewish biblical scholar. As I said, it's a strange combination, but all credit to the author, somehow it works.

As well as Holmes himself we have Holmes's brother Mycroft, Mrs Hudson, a grown up Billy (the young lad who spied for Sherlock), an inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, but sadly in this book, only background references to the good Dr Watson.

It's a very interesting story that held my interest throughout. Holmes and Russell are visited by Dorothy Ruskin, an old friend of Mary's. Dorothy is archeologist just returned from Palestine. She leaves in their care an ancient papyrus manuscript that astonishingly might be an epistle from Mary Magdalene. It suggests that Mary was an apostle - the possibility of a female apostle would have stirred up such a storm in the 1920's. It would still be quite spectacular today. This side of the story is left in the background following the murder of Dorothy Ruskin by a hit and run driver. Sherlock had been getting somewhat bored, and jumped at the chance to investigate this crime, and Mary Russell too relished another detective outing. In the days before her death, Dorothy had visited her sister Erica Rogers, and a retired Colonel Edwards whose committeee might finance a Palestinian dig. Had she said anything to them that might have lead to her death ? Dorothy's lodgings had been ransacked, and in their absence Holmes and Russell' cottage is later also ransacked. Is someone searching for the ancient papyrus ? Mary Russell goes undercover to investigate Colonel Rogers, and a suitably disguised Holmes tackles Erica Rogers.

There is quite a bit of humour in these stories. The conversations between Sherlock and Mary often sparkle, and I liked a section where a "Bertie Wooster" type friend of Mary's kept two chums of Mary's out of the way lest they recognise the undercover Mary Russell, and give the game away. Dr Watson has made Sherlock Holmes famous, and Erica Rogers who takes "The Strand" magazine is a fan. Chief Inspector Lestrade is the son of Conan Doyle's Inspector Lestrade. He tells Sherlock how his father enthralled him with stories about the famous Sherlock Holmes. Holmes pioneered so many techniques (eg fingerprints) now standard police procedure in the 1920s. The author Laurie King paints a very plausible picture of a Sherlock Holmes still active all these years later. In short, it's all done so well.

At the end, when it seems our duo may have failed, a chance remark by Mary ignites a new line of enquiry, all ends well and successfully, and Mary and Sherlock return to domestic bliss - Mary to her studies, Holmes to his bee keeping.

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The Moor     (1998)

I read this book in Nov, 2018.

This is book four in an unlikely combination of a young heiress Mary Russell meets an older Sherlock Holmes series that I really like. It's a preposterous idea that should not work, but it's done so well, the author has re-created a Sherlock Holmes that is really believable - so somehow I have become hooked. Of course, Sherlock Holmes is an interesting character, but Mary Russell, a young Jewess, a serious biblical / Hebrew scholar, more than holds her own. Now she is Mrs Holmes, but prefers to be addressed as plain Mary Russell. The partnership is Holmes and Russell, and both often go their own ways, but there is a genuine mutual affection that is understated, but handled very well. In short, in their own way, they are devoted to each other.

This book is set in wild Dartmoor - the "Moor" of the title. The moor is almost a character in the book - a beautiful, ferocious, unforgiving wilderness whose bogs can swallow you hole, and your body will seldom be found again. The main character of this story is Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, someone whom Sherlock calls a friend. Mary comments that the only other person that Holmes calls a friend is Dr Watson - now too old for these adventures. Gould knows Dartmoor better even than Holmes knows London, and he helped Sherlock when Holmes tackled the The Hound of the Baskervilles. Now there is another strange creature lurking on the moor - a phantom coach pulled by the skeleton bones of some horse, and another wild dog. Sometimes the dog is seen by itself, sometimes with the coach. The people of the moor either live on the wilds of Dartmoor, or in villages, and seem two separate tribes. The "moor"ones are strong, enduring, the salt of the earth, but superstitious. Mary gains their trust.

The story opens with Mary researching away in Oxford when she gets a message from Holmes to drop everything, and meet him in Dartmoor. She puts the message aside, but gets another half an hour later saying "put down your books, and rush down to Dartmoor at once". How well Holmes knows Russell ! She arrives at night in a deserted Coryton railway station to find a note from Holmes pinned to a wall. She has to take the north path to join him and Gould in Gould's mansion "Lew House". It's a poor, muddy, treacherous path and the wind and torrential rain pound down on poor Mary. Covered in mud and soaking wet, she eventually struggles to Lew House and a very dismissive greeting from Gould - "were we waiting for that ?" Mrs Elliot, the housekeeper is temporarily away, and so the radiators do not work, there is no hot water, and supper is only slightly edible. Mary wants to go back to Oxford, but Holmes tells her he needs her help - so of course she must stay.

It's a bit of a mystery to Mary why Holmes defers so much to old Baring-Gould. But eventually we and Mary find out, and with Mrs Gould back the heating now works, and the home cooking is excellent. Mary even grows to like Gould.

Two neighbours visit Gould - a rich American Richard Ketteridge, and his secretary David Scheiman. Holmes and Mary are invited to join them for dinner at their house. Baring-Gould does not tell them that Ketteridge has bought Baskeville Hall. Had he known Holmes would not have accepted the invitation. I should mention one other sub plot - the army are testing a new secret tank on the moor, but the secret has been broken, and brother Mycroft has asked Holmes to investigate whilst in the area.

The story now unfolds in it's own good time, with lots of atmosphere, and wonderful descriptions of the "Moor" in all it's moods. I didn't mind the lack of action in the slightest - Laurie King is a good writer, and we are in good company with her characters Holmes and Russell. Eventually the story heats up, there is adventure aplenty, and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion. All in all, a really good story.

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O Jerusalem     (1999)

I read this book in Dec, 2018.

This is book five in what is turning out to be an excellent series. It's the ongoing adventures of Mary Russell, a young American heiress and her partner and now husband, the great Sherlock Holmes. They met by chance on the Sussex Downs, she became his student, then partner, and then wife. It all sounds preposterous, but somehow it works because of some fine writing. Laurie King has captured the spirit of Sherlock Holmes - I always felt I was reading about the same Holmes character as created by Conon Doyle. There are all sorts of other dimensions to these books. The author is an American Jewess, and her creation Mary Russell is also a Jew, and a fine Hebrew scholar. This book tells of the adventure that befell Sherlock and Mary when they had to escape from England - ie those referred to in book one. Chronologically, this should really be book 2, but the author chose not to be diverted in telling the personal lives story of Holmes and Russell. In book 4 they are husband and wife, and there is no doubt that they are in love. Now in book 5 we jump back to 1918, when Mary was still Holmes's student / assistant, and romance lay in the future.

Homes and Russell had to escape England to regroup, and sought help from Mycroft, Holmes's brother. He offered them five possibilities, and Mary jumped at the one that entailed a visit to Palestine. What Jew would not want to visit the Holy Land. Eventually this adventure takes Holmes and Russell to Jerusalem. Mary just wants to sit on a hill and worship the place, and as a Jewish scholar knows so much about the history of the place. Most readers will recognise lots of places that are mentioned in the Bible. Mary certainly does - she in not a christian, but Jews and Christians have a shared history. The place is also holy to Moslems. The author helpfully gives us a summary of the history of Palestine. This story is set in 1918, and General Allenby has driven the Turks out of the Holy Lands. The place is now administered and ruled by Britain (think of the times of Empire) but we now think of the place as a poisoned chalice. Old enemies still fight old enemies 100 years later - but Allenby seemed a decent honourable man.

In reading the story I was reminded of the adventures of John Buchan's boys hero Richard Hannay. It's that sort of yarn - adventure on a grand scale, Empire, politics, espionage, intrigue, for "King and Country, " etc. When Holmes and Russell land secretly in Palestine, they are met by two Arab contacts - Ali and Mahoud. The arabs don't trust this strange pair - an old man and a young girl, and lead them in circles, cold, hungry and exhausted. Mary wonders why she is there. She would prefer to be back in Oxford with her books. Holmes recognises that they are being tested - a test that they pass. Initially the problem they have been sent to help with is introduced as a series of unrelated murders throughout the country, but Holmes thinks that these and the anti government rumours are connected and being orchestrated. Not all the Turks have fled - some are lying low to strike at Britain in a terrorist movement. It seems there may be a spy in Allenby's HQ, and the car carrying Holmes, Russell, Ali and Mahoud is ambushed and Holmes is captured and tortured. Mary, Ali, and Mahoud have to rescue Holmes, and save Jerusalem - so it's adventure on a grand scale, well told by a gifted author. It all builds to a succession of climaxes, and certainly kept me turning pages.

I liked the story, and the history lesson. I don't think I have ever read a better description of what it's like to visit an Arab Souk. And throughout the fledging Holmes and Russell relationship is handled perfectly. It's a perfect capture of place and time - poverty and squalor. Well done, Laurie King.

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