by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
Picture Sherlock Holmes, retired, attending to his bees and living in the English countryside, with nary a mystery on the horizon. It’s 1914. Mrs. Hudson is still with him; Watson he sees occasionally. Even Inspector Lestrade makes an appearance. A quixotic young girl, a mere fifteen years old, wanders onto his property. Holmes, being Holmes, pays little mind, but a flicker of curiosity is ignited. This be-speckled and disheveled female, named Mary Russell, begins to wander to the Holmes place often and he begins to take more notice, in his supremely detached fashion. An odd, adversarial friendship begins which is fully revealed in the The Beekeepers Apprentice, the first book in the series. Their verbal sparing and blossoming romance is great fun. Despite the age difference, their temperaments match, both of a highly serious nature.
According to Publisher’s Weekly,
“King has created a fitting partner for the Great Detective: a quirky, intelligent woman who can hold her own with a man renowned for his contempt for other people’s thought processes.”
Jump ahead a few adventures, books and years. Holmes and Russell have married. In the intervening years, Holmes has taught Mary all that he knows and she is very good at detecting and deducing. As much as they might want to stay secluded in the English countryside, Mycroft Holmes, the enigmatic, government game player and Holmes’s brother, convince them to solve all manner of British matters of state in exotic locations.
So, if you can suspend belief, this is fiction after all, and go along with the premise that Sherlock Holmes marries late in life, then you will love Laurie R. King’s imaginative, intellectual ‘Mary Russell mysteries.’
Garment of Shadows, told in the form of a memoir by Mary, is set in Morocco, the story picking up at the conclusion of Pirate King, the 11th Mary Russell mystery. It’s 1924. Mary awakens; she knows not where, with serious head injuries, in a small darkened room and can remember nothing. She feels danger all around and when she hears soldiers she escapes the room, despite her injuries. Holmes, meanwhile, only knows that she was last seen walking away from her tent accompanied by a small boy and that she is not at their assigned meeting spot.
Eventually, Holmes finds Mary but their reunion is less than joyous:
‘I was going to suggest that I might help you clean your hair, since it would not be a good idea to get too much soap and water in that wound but I doubt in your current state you would care for that.”
‘I should think not,” I said with indignation, then paused. ‘Er, were I not in my current state, would I permit your assistance in the bath?’
It has been know Russell, I am your husband”
The room was very still. Even the boy, who had followed none of this glanced up from his snack. “Well. So you say. Perhaps I ought to ask your name?’
“Sherlock Holmes. You call me Holmes.”
Using The Rif Revolt between the French and the Spanish over the Rif Republic, which existed from 1921 to 1926, King involves Holmes and Russell in the deepest layers of intrigue among the governments of Britain, Spain, France, Morocco and the Rif rebels. The RifRepublic was created in September 1921, when the people of the Rif (the Riffians) revolted and declared their independence from Spanish occupation as well as from the Moroccan sultan.
Were it not for King’s superb storytelling abilities and complete versatility with the subject, this mystery/memoir could have gotten out of hand. History in this part of the world is not straightforward. But just when I thought I was losing my grasp, Holmes would fill Mary in on a missing memory or she would suddenly have a piece of her memory return. Even though amnesia can be overdone as a storytelling vehicle, King does not overplay it, allowing Mary to heal physically and mentally at a believable pace.
Colleagues of Holmes and Russell, Mahmoud and Ali Hasz are at the center of the intrigue, posing as rebels in the revolt to gain information for the British government. Holmes and Russell trust them explicitly. But should they? And the mute boy…is he as innocent as he seems? He does turn up regularly in the oddest places with the most unlikely people.
As Holmes and Russell negotiate Morocco by automobile, on foot, on horseback, land in prison, dodge bullets and knifes, wear trade-mark disguises, match wits with rebels and government officials both, we, the reader, get to go along for the ride. We also learn a great deal about the land, the politics and the history of the region, not to mention the smells, the clothing, and the food.
“The language is incredibly rich but always precise, the history of this time in Morocco woven with a contemporary eye on the wheels within wheels. As always, the relationship between Holmes and Russell is utterly understated, yet traced with heat and light”.
Laurie King began writing the Mary Russell mysteries in 1977; Garment of Shadowsis the 12th in the series. I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) might be scratching his head to think that Holmes would marry, but he would only have to read one of the books to be convinced that it could happen.
Published in the ‘Books’ section of the Sunday Herald, October 14, 2012.