There's a lot to like about Laurie King's mystery series featuring Mary Russell. I should say Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes, but for me it's really more about Mary than Sherlock, or to be more precise Mary and Holmes. A Letter of Mary is the third of a series of (so far) twelve books. Although I'm a great fan of mystery novels, it did take a little convincing that I was a good match as a reader for these particular stories. To be honest (and yes, I feel shallow saying this) I was a little put off by the age discrepancy between Mary and Holmes, but theirs is truly more a meeting of minds than anything overly romantic and sentimental. Now I just appreciate how totally they are suited for each other and don't give the age thing a second thought.
Initially the draw for reading the books was the period King writes about, which this time out is 1923. Now it's the intellectual puzzle that King presents and her deft characterizations. Mary and Holmes are nicely balanced--once pupil and teacher they're now equals and have an enviable partnership not only in their personal relationship but in their sleuthing. I've not read enough books by Conan Doyle to know how close King's Holmes is to the original, but he seems quite convincing to me. And while Holmes plays a fairly central role in the stories, Mary's is altogether very respectable, too. With each new book you can see she is coming into her own. She's smart, daring, and shows a fair bit of moxie, which I like in my heroines. I like this description of Mary
"The man at the desk flicked his eyes over me appraisingly, and obviously he did not know what to make of my combination of wire-rimmed glasses, thick, old-fashioned hairstyle, tailored trousers and jacket, expensive silk blouse, and a gold band on my right hand, with no hat, no gloves, and flat shoes. He was forced to abandon all assumptions and treat me matter-of-factly, which was, of course, one of the reasons I dressed as I did."
Of course it's from Mary's perspective that the story is told. An American, her family died in a car accident in California which still troubles Mary. She was raised by an aunt in Sussex with whom she had little in common and there was little love lost between the two. Luckily for her Holmes (literally) stumbled upon her one day, and the rest is, as they say, history. Each book opens with a preface from the editor, Laurie King as it happens, in which she explains how she came across the manuscript. King received a mysterious trunk in the mail containing odds and ends and amongst them the mystery stories/Mary Russell's memoirs which she has been publishing. She's also got a key to a safety-deposit box, but no knowledge as to where it resides. A temptation to keep you reading the books? A nice teaser, but the stories are enough to keep me coming back.
The trunk also contained an antique inlaid box, now empty, but it's the contents of this box that is central to this story. A student of theology, Mary is an obvious choice of recipient to safeguard the box in which is housed a roll of papyrus with a message written on it. There's a chance the letter was written by Mary Magdalene, which if brought out into the open is sure to send shock waves through the religious community. The scroll is entrusted to Mary by Miss Dorothy Ruskin who has long lived in the Holy Land where she spends her time on archaeological digs cataloging the items that are found. She's only back in England temporarily to visit her family but knows the delicacy with which the papyrus must be handled--both literally and figuratively.
Not a day later when Miss Ruskin returns to London from Sussex she's dead. The victim of a hit and run accident, Mary and Holmes suspect foul play was involved in Miss Ruskin's death. Who could have wanted to murder the respectable, scholarly woman? When their home in Sussex is broken into and trashed, Mary and Holmes begin questioning just what sort of life Miss Ruskin led and whether someone would be willing to murder to suppress the release Mary Magdalene's letter. Red herrings abound in this story, and as with all good mystery novels nothing is quite as it seems.
Mary has a previous connection to Dorothy Ruskin and the Holy Land, which is alluded to in the story, but the reader won't find out until two books later, in O Jerusalem, just what happened earlier in 1918 when Mary and Holmes travelled to Palestine on secret business of Holmes's brother, Mycroft. Of course I am now intensely curious about it, but I'll be reading the next book, The Moor, first. And hopefully sooner than later.
In case you're curious I wrote about The Beekeeper's Apprentice here, and A Monstrous Regiment of Women here. Laurie King very kindly wrote a guest post a few years back, too, which you might find interesting if you're a fan of historical fiction. Now I'm reading Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger since it was about time for another Miss Marple installment. Ah, the joys of cozy mysteries.