A fictional story about a fictional character from another fictional story. And a real author who is a fictional character in same said story. But when you are reading, it does of course take on a life of its own and all feels quite real. It's kind of circuitous and I like it. As a matter of fact I like Mary Russell especially, a fictional character who I would love to meet if I could. To be honest I have never been especially drawn to Sherlock Holmes, but I must say I really like Laurie King's mystery series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his partner Mary Russell (though in my mind Mary totally gets top billing). I'm only up to book number four, The Moor, which seemed a perfect RIP reading choice and how fitting that a novel about a spectral coach and accompanying hound is one I finish on Halloween night (getting one more RIP read in just under the gun).
First a bit of catching up. Last time around Mary and Sherlock investigated the death of a woman who had visited them in Sussex but was the victim of a hit and run accident in London shortly after. That was in 1923 and a mere month later Mary is called away from her scholarly studies once again.
"To say I was irritated would be an understatement. We had only just pulled ourselves from the mire of a difficult case and now, less than a month later, with my mind firmly turned to the work awaiting me in this, my spiritual home, Oxford, my husband and longtime partner Sherlock Holmes proposed with this peremptory telegram to haul me away into his world once more."
It is often with affectionate exasperation that Mary refers to Holmes's 'peremptory telegrams'. It's not the first time he's done this. Typical Sherlock!
"RUSSELL NEED YOU IN DEVONSHIRE. IF FREE TAKE EARLIEST TRAIN CORYTON. IF NOT FREE COME ANYWAY. BRING COMPASS."
The moors of Devonshire are not the most hospitable of places and less so when it's rainy and cold and you find yourself walking two miles on a wet and moonless night to get to Lew House where a friend of Holmes lives and who has asked him to look into the matter of spectral sightings on the moor and a death of one of the local tin miners. The fact that the body of the deceased was found on soft ground that also showed the impression of pawprints of a very large hound is worth noting. It all hearkens back to a case Sherlock Holmes solved many years prior--one which took him to Baskerville Hall. Ring a bell with you? Curiously, Lew House is not so very far from the Baskerville family seat. There remains just one Baskerville-a young woman who has moved into town and sold off the hall to an American being unable to pay for the upkeep of her once stately home.
Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould of Lew House is an old friend of Holmes. A parson who also happens to be a writer and folklorist (and based on a real man, too) has taken to his bed, fragile in his old age. There was a time not so very long ago that he was as spry as Holmes but ill health has laid him low. He helped Holmes all those years ago with the first hound of the Baskervilles and now once again hears of numerous sightings of a ghostly coach with a woman inside and on occasion yet another hound. And then this death and now Holmes comes to Gould's aid. Is this one real--hound and coach? It would seem so by the many stories the locals tell.
"I cannot deny that the old man's words brought a finger of primitive ice down my spine. A loose dog chasing sheep is a problem, but hardly reason reason for superstitious fears. However, the night, my fatigue, and the stark fact that this apparently sensible and undeniably intelligent old man was himself frightened, all came togetherto walk a goose over my grave. I shivered."
So Mary and Sherlock begin their investigation--questioning locals, following up questionable leads and then separating to look for evidence on the moors of a coach--a real one that is being used fraudulently--perhaps to draw attention away from something else more sinister? Once again this is a puzzle that must be pieced together through a combination of observation, deduction, lots of questions and then a second body is pulled from a lake complication matters even more.
This is what I love about Mary. She is Sherlock's intellectual equal (even if they don't always see eye to eye on respective scholarly interests--for Holmes this means his dabbling in the spy world of his brother Mycroft, and for Mary her Talmudic studies). She isn't afraid to get her hands dirty (and will wear men's trousers in the process) and even puts up with a skittish mare who throws her at every opportunity while looking for clues on the moor. But most importantly she knows how to look at the bigger picture and spends hours in Baring-Gould's library researching local history (volume after volume after volume) until she has made the connections she needs to shed light on these 'ghostly' sightings and the subsequent real deaths of two men. It all comes together in one wonderfully climatic final scene on the moor when all the various threads twine into one very good solution. And another emotionally draining case for the pair.
Shh. Don't tell, but I think Mary Russell has surpassed Maisie Dobbs as my favorite heroine (though I will always love Maisie, too, and for many of the same reasons I like Mary so much). She's got a wonderful with--dry humor mixed with intellect and savvy and a certain fearlessness when fearlessness is needed. I want to keep reading and will be picking up O Jerusalem next (will start reading this weekend as a matter of fact). The Moor takes place directly after Letter to Mary, but with O Jerusalem the story goes back in time to 1918 before Mary and Sherlock's marriage where they are sent to British Mandate Palestine at the request of Holmes's brother Mycroft.
There are a dozen Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries and one on the horizon for 2015, so I have my work (happily) cut out for me. I've not done this for ages, but I feel like just reading through the rest of the books in one fell swoop.
Prior books include The Beekeeper's Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and A Letter of Mary. And then there is Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I think neither Holmes nor Mary was especially happy about.
Yet another most satisfying read!