A couple of months ago when I was asked to participate in a virtual book tour to kick off Laurie King's new mystery featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes I didn't hesitate for long. I'm a great fan of mysteries and a few years back was introduced to Mary Russell in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, an intriguing young sleuth that I have ever since meant to follow up on. I know this series has a great following, so I thought it would be fun to hear from the author about her work, as well as give me the perfect excuse to finally get around to reading A Monstrous Regiment of Women, King's second Mary Russell novel (the new one is number nine, so I have a bit of catching up to do).
I had intended to have the book read with a wonderful review prepared for you, but best laid plans and all that. I'm at the midpoint of the novel and enjoying it immensely, but I just couldn't get it read in a weekend (yes, should have started it earlier, but time seemed to get away from me this past month) and to be honest I hate to rush a book like this. There's too much to take in and I'd rather savor the experience, but I can tell you a bit about it and why I like the series so much.
It's best to start with Mary Russell first. She's the big draw for me. Strangely for being a mystery fan I've really not read much by Arthur Conan Doyle, so I have few preconceived ideas about Sherlock Holmes and only a vague knowledge of his history and inner workings, who's the other part of the equation. Maybe that's better? I'm not a purist, so any inconsistencies are beyond me, but from what I've heard he's a convincing character. Mary and Holmes work very well together. But back to Mary. As already mentioned she's introduced to us in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Living in Sussex with her aunt after the death of her parents and younger brother in a car accident she stumbles over (or does he stumble over her? no matter in any case) the now retired Sherlock Holmes. A bit tomboy-ish she's only fifteen and an eager learner. It's inevitable that this intelligent young woman with her analytical mind will find a kindred spirit in Holmes. They become fast friends and Holmes becomes a sort of mentor to Mary, who's always ready to escape from the clutches of her greedy aunt.
"I had met Sherlock Holmes at a time when adolescence and the devastating circumstances of my orphaning had left me with an exterior toughness and an interior that was malleable to the personality of anyone willing to listen to me and take me seriously. Had Holmes been a cat burglar or forger, no doubt I should have come into adulthood learning to walk parapets at night or concocting arcane inks."
I should mention that Mary is an heiress. The daughter of an American father and English mother, she's also Jewish but doesn't practice the religion.
By 1921 when A Monstrous Regiment of Women opens, Mary is nearly twenty-one and ready to come into her money. She's completed her studies at Oxford, where she was a student and capable scholar in theology and chemistry.
"Over the years of my informal apprenticeship, I had learnt his trade, while at the same time pursuing my own academic vision. If detecting was what I did, theology was what I was. Chemistry served to take up the slack. There had been clashes between the two disparate demands, but so far a final choice had not been necessary. The two sides of me lived in friendly mutual incomprehension."
Perhaps what's also incomprehensible are the feelings she's having for Holmes. Mary was an adolescent in the previous book, but her experiences in this story will truly bring her into adulthood. Honestly the idea of a romance between such a young woman and a much older man wasn't something that appealed to me before, but seeing Mary mature I'm not so uneasy about it anymore. However, I've not gotten that far into the book so won't speculate. Suffice it to say that Mary feels the need to distance herself from Holmes, so she takes herself off to London where she runs into an old college friend.
This chance encounter leads to an introduction to Margery Childe, a very charismatic woman who leads The New Temple of God. Margery can awe and inspire a crowd, and Mary is intrigued by her. She's a combination of mystic and feminist with political leanings and has a following of women who fill her coffers so she can do good deeds. There's always that niggling concern about religion and money and living well despite good intentions, and when a series of murders of the wealthy members occurs (they've conveniently left their money to The Temple), Mary and by default Holmes are drawn into a hushed investigation.
Once again this is the perfect combination of elements for a successful read for me. Although the mystery is important, it's the inner lives and inner struggles of the characters and how they relate to each other that I find so fascinating. Drop them into a well-articulated post-WWI England, an era of social upheaval and change, and tie it all together with good solid writing and I'm sold. Okay, I've still got half a book to read, but I don't expect to be disappointed. Check back in a few days, and I'll let you know how things turn out (but not with the mystery--you'll have to read the book for yourself to find that out). And please feel free to drop by tomorrow when Laurie King will be a guest here.