I am underwhelmed.
Let me begin by saying that, apart from the inbuilt paradoxes, the Mary Russell books are not badly written, and can provide an evening's engaging reading. In my view, they are much superior to the Kate Martinelli mysteries. But this latest book is curiously unfinished, and one suspects the promotion was ratcheted high because of the weakness of the offering. To be fair to Mrs. King, her husband has been ill for several years, and died just as she was completing the book, so she must have been distracted during the writing of it.
Mary Russell, if there's anyone out there who does not know, is a half Jewish ["the right half"], left-handed, very tall, somewhat androgynous young woman of American origins [but raised largely in England], who meets Sherlock Holmes when she is a gawky 15 year old and he is retired to keeping bees on the Sussex Downs and is in his fifties. [Mrs. King explains why she does not accept the age Conan Doyle -- through Dr. Watson -- assigns to Holmes in The Last Bow]. Ms. Russell impresses Holmes with the kind of incisive reasoning and observation he has traditionally employed, and over the period of her adolescence she serves a kind of apprenticeship that culminates in partnership and [gasp!] marriage to The Great Man. Someone has commented that Mrs. King has written the ultimate "Mary Sue fanfic", "Mary Sue" being the name given to fan fiction in which the author inserts her or himself. The impression is given weight by Mary Russell's choice of academic specialty, theology, which was also Mrs. King's. [Mrs. King married one of her theology professors, a man more than three decades older than herself, incidentally].
In the course of the books, Holmes and Russell [who normally address each other by surnames] have a variety of adventures, some more fanciful than others. Of course they are both adept at all kinds of arcane skills and talents, and become word-perfect in multiple languages at the drop of a hat.
But there is one immense problem, and it's not turning the asexual Conan Doyle Holmes into a man who loves women. It's the difference between the Victorian world, and that of the Roaring Twenties.
Mrs. King has said that she came to the Holmes Canon [which is what Sherlockians call the collection of tales written by Conan Doyle] via the Jeremy Brett TV adaptations. As the British do, these were very faithful to the original stories, but Brett camped Holmes up to an extraordinary degree, and physically he was quite different from the tall, thin, pale, hawknosed figure of the stories. Brett, of course, was laboring under the stereotyped version of Holmes that had begun with the original illustrations and went through several reinforcements in Hollywood, and was anxious to bring his own interpretation to the part.
Surprisingly, the fictional Holmes has always been attractive to women, possibly because of his sheer inaccessibility to them -- he seems completely indifferent -- and his courtesy. In the Canon, the only woman he admired, according to his biographer, Dr. Watson, gained his respect by seeing through his disguises, not because she was a great beauty. I remember having quite a crush on him when I was about 12--well, who could have a crush on a walrus like Dr. Watson, I ask you? [I have been informed there is quite a lot of "slash" fanfic out there assuming he and Watson were lovers; something I'm sure would have deeply shocked Conan Doyle] There's no intrinsic reason why Holmes should not have had heterosexual relationships from time to time except that he probably found all the women he met to be incredibly stupid.
But the big dilemma that Mrs. King has is transposing a thoroughly Victorian character, working in a Victorian world, into the 20th century, and a 20th century that had gone through the trauma of World War I. In all the previous Mary Russell books Mrs. King has teetered along the edge of an abyss, not quite sure of her footing but not yet tumbling in. Now I think she has.
Holmes' Victorianism is not just a matter of speech patterns, although Mrs. King has struggled with these in the past. [By contrast, read Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody novels; she gets the idiom spot on]. The world Holmes inhabited was a world where there were still unexplored parts of the globe, with exotic natives, such as Andaman Islanders with blow pipes. It was a world lit by gas or kerosene lamps; of pea soup fogs, and wild eccentricity. It was a world with more than a touch of the Gothic, where a murderer could effect his crime by letting a venomous snake through a ventilation shaft, or a hookah-smoking gargoyle of a man could re-create an Indian palace in his gloomy Victorian mansion, where people lived in houses with names like Pondicherry or Wisteria Lodge, and arrived there in horse-drawn conveyances.
Russell, on the other hand, inhabits a much more modern and mechanized world, one that has electric light, and the telephone, and gasoline-powered omnibuses. She doesn't wear bustles or corsets, and her hemlines are not floor-length. Warfare on a scale undreamt of 40 years previously have dimmed the impact of Gordon's martyrdom in Khartoum or the defense of Rorke's Drift in South Africa. Scott and Amundsen have raced to the South Pole, and the Victorian Scott lost. Airplanes are already making the world into a much smaller place, and a much less mysterious one. It is, in short, the difference between the time when Soames Forsyte courted Irene, and when his daughter Fleur fell in love with Irene's son.
In this newest novel, Mrs. King does not make the transition from the Holmes we know to the Holmes of the Twenties convincingly. It would be expected that as Holmes got older -- and he's now well into his sixties, according to the chronology of the series -- he would be less adaptable, rather than more. But it is becoming increasingly difficult, I think, to "hear" his voice. He's a nice guy, but he's not really Holmes any more. The interaction between Damien, Holmes' son by Irene Adler [an idea Sherlockians have been kicking around for ages], and Holmes is weak [well, if Holmes is an unlikely husband, one can imagine what a father he'd be!], and Russell is peculiarly indifferent to both the memory of Holmes' previous love and the attraction of his son [who is, after all, much closer in age to her]. Now that would have been a triangle.
Fans have indicated that what they like in the series above all else is the interaction between Holmes and Russell. In this novel, there's more interaction between Russell and Mycroft [who was a shadowy figure in the Canon; he has become a major figure in most of the books of the Russell series] than between Russell and her husband -- a husband, incidentally, who is almost never affectionate in word or action toward his wife. Their relationship is almost entirely cerebral. I can see why Mrs. King doesn't want her main characters to be falling all over each other all the time, but there never seems to be any communication apart from professional concerns in this latest book.
Lastly, I'm getting a bit bored with the theological side of things. So far one book has dealt with a charismatic female religious figure, rather like Aimee Semple McPherson; an archeological find of religious significance is the main theme of another, and now we have a religious nutcase who has written a mishmash of a book [part Scripture, part Khalil Gibran] and is ritually slaughtering people and animals. And who manages to get away in the end, leaving us to await a further book. Of course, it's a topic Mrs. King knows a lot about. [I still don't know why she had to make Mary Russell Jewish, frankly].
Sigh. I think I'm going to go back to Amelia Peabody. The plots are fantastic, and she's an opinionated, egotistic, shrewish bint with a loud-mouthed husband and a very weird son, but I find them hilarious [in the audiobook versions read by Barbara Rosenblat, at any rate]. And in imitation of Mrs. Emerson, I think what I need now is a good cup of tea. Off to have a brew-up, with my last PG Tips...