Thirty years ago, the first Mary Russell book (do not call it a Sherlock Holmes book, or, for heaven’s sake, a pastiche), was published. It was a cause for celebration then, and a cause for celebration now, especially with the 18th book, The Lantern’s Dance, now on our doorstep. Let’s take a closer look.
It was in 1987 that the thirty-five-year-old Laurie Richardson King sat down at the kitchen table in the farmhouse she’d help build herself, and picked up a fountain pen. She’d spent years roaming the world with her husband, Noel, from the far Pacific to South America to India to Israel. She held both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in religion, and would undoubtedly have gone on to a doctorate, but Noel was thirty years older than she and nearing retirement age, and they had two small children in school, and…it would have been irresponsible.
As she sat at the table, she was thinking about a recent PBS series she’d been watching about Sherlock Holmes. It had irritated her a bit. Everybody was always so impressed by Holmes’ intellect and intuition, but, really, what was the latter but the instinct mothers used every day? People spoke condescendingly about “women’s intuition,” but when men had it, it was considered something so special.
What if you took all the ingredients that made up Holmes, she wondered, and poured them into a woman of the period? What would that look like? And what if the woman was actually just a girl – raw, troubled, scarred by trauma, but possessed of extraordinary eyes, wits, skill, and determination – and she was put in Holmes’ path (or, more accurately, he in hers)?
King pulled the pad forward and began to write:
“I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him….My first awareness that there was another soul in the universe was when a male throat cleared itself loudly not four feet from me. The Latin text flew into the air, followed closely by an Anglo-Saxon oath. Heart pounding, I hastily pulled together what dignity I could and glared down through my spectacles at this figure hunched up at my feet: a gaunt, graying man in his fifties wearing a cloth cap, ancient tweed greatcoat, and decent shoes, with a threadbare Army rucksack on the ground beside him. A tramp perhaps, who had left the rest of his possessions stashed beneath a bush. Or an Eccentric….
“’What on earth are you doing?’ I demanded.” (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, 1994).
And so was born Mary Russell, half-American, half-British, keenly Jewish, orphan, scholar, and budding feminist; a girl haunted by nightmares of the car crash that killed her mother, father, and brother; and determined to find purpose as an ambulance driver in the Great War that was raging in 1915. First, though, she wanted to take one final ramble across the Downs, and it is there that she stumbles upon a man who, unbeknownst to her, at 54 and retired for 17 years, has become so overwhelmed by “a soul-grinding boredom and a pervading sense of uselessness” (“Beekeeping for Beginners, Mary Russell’s War, 2016) that he is actively considering suicide.
Instead, he is accosted by this girl dressed as a boy, who, to his amazement, makes him laugh, and, to his even greater amazement, turns out to have acute skills of observation and deduction. It sparks something in him. This will be his purpose now: to hone her, train her, help her fulfill her true potential. She in turn becomes a willing student, her lessons continuing even after she goes off to Oxford, and she comes to regard him as “my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms,” although “arguments were a part of life with Holmes – a week without a knockdown, drag-out fight was an insipid week indeed” (A Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1995).
The cases in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice start small – a mysterious illness, a series of burglaries – but then a visiting American Senator’s daughter is kidnapped. Russell rescues the girl, but the reverberations are dramatic. An implacable new enemy has been made. Holmes is nearly killed by a bomb, Russell barely avoids another bomb, bullets whistle through their window. They must flee England to regroup, and when they return, after an extraordinary adventure in Palestine that we don’t even read about until the fifth book, O Jerusalem (1999), they defeat their enemy, but it is clear to Russell that two things have changed. One is that Holmes is now prepared to treat her, not as an apprentice, but as “his complete, full, and unequivocal equal.” The other is that she has developed a definite taste for “the sharp exhilaration of danger and the demands of an uncomfortable way of life…a pure, hot passion for freedom.”
And there is another change as well.
It has been more than five and a half years since they first met. She is a woman now, and they have bonded over many perilous investigations. They share “a rabidly independent nature, an impatience with lesser minds, total unconventionality,” and yet now, she realizes, “Holmes was a part of me. Because of my age when we met, neither of us had erected our normal defenses, and by the time I came to womanhood, it was too late. He had already let me under his guard, and I him” (A Monstrous Regiment of Women).
After narrowly escaping death, they share a first kiss, and then look at one another. “You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is,” says Holmes. “I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be.”
“Holmes, is this a proposal of marriage?”
It is. The next time we see them, in A Letter of Mary (1996), it is two years later, and they have undergone other perilous undertakings, some of which we are treated to in subsequent books. We don’t see the wedding (though if you want to read a riotous description of it, seek out the short story, “The Marriage of Mary Russell” in King’s short story collection, Mary Russell’s War), nor do we witness their honeymoon, thank God. But from then on, they are one unit, even though as Holmes says in A Letter to Mary, “I still find it difficult to accustom myself to being half of a creature with two brains and four eyes.”
One unit, however, doesn’t mean they are always together. Many of the books find them operating on separate tracks. In Locked Rooms (2005), set in San Francisco, Russell is forced, finally, to confront the dark secrets and nightmares of her own past, while Holmes investigates what really happened to her parents. In Garment of Shadows (2012), Russell wakes up in Morocco, with blood on her hands, soldiers at the door, and no memory of who she is or why she is there, while Holmes searches frantically for her. In the electrifying double-header The Language of Bees (2009) and The God of the Hive (2010), Holmes and Russell go separately on the run, wanted by the police, hunted by enemies, communicating only by coded messages, while guarding precious human cargo. In the new book, The Lantern’s Dance (2024), it is Holmes who must chase down the reality of his own parentage, while an injured Russell decodes an astonishing tale of blackmail, murder, and obsession found in a trunk.
Kidnapped in England, beaten bloody in Pakistan, bound to an altar for human sacrifice in India, ambushed by gunfire in Morocco, imprisoned in a coffin in Roumania, isolated midair over Scotland – “We flew through the morning, a trapped woman, a sleeping child, and a pilot slowly bleeding to death at the controls” (The God of the Hive) – from 1918 to 1925, there is barely a respite for Holmes and Russell.
But they do have their fun. Their disguises are many. Hindu magicians, Bedouins, Buddhist pilgrims, workmen, cab drivers, beggars, station attendants – whatever the case requires: “Once he dressed me as a lady of the evening,” reminisces Russell. “Another time I wore a water-butt…A barrel under a drainpipe. A very damp and draughty disguise” (Justice Hall, 2002).
Surprising people pop up. At any point, you might encounter Lawrence of Arabia, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Prince Hirohito, Cole Porter, Zelda Fitzgerald, Queen Marie of Roumania, an “odd man named Tolkien,” Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, or Lord Peter Wimsey. You’ll also encounter more familiar Holmesian characters, but with a decidedly different slant,
Mrs. Hudson, for instance, is a revelation. In the blockbuster The Murder of Mary Russell (2016), King gives us Hudson’s full and shocking backstory as a grifter and conwoman in England and Australia, until the day she is brought up short by a young man seeking reparations for her misdeeds, “a grey-eyed devil,” who offers her a path to penance, “and more acting than you could dream of.” He is leasing a house in Baker Street, she will be the landlady, and he will be the tenant, “although I fear, Mrs. Hudson, that you will find me a most troublesome tenant.”
For 46 years, Mrs. Hudson plays the part, first in London, then in Sussex, until the day she returns home to a pool of blood on the floor, a missing Mary Russell, and the certain knowledge that her past has finally caught up with her. While Holmes sprints flat-out to find Russell, Clarissa Hudson knows it’s time to summon up some of her old skills if they’re to get to the bottom of this, skills that will serve her well both here and in the subsequent Riviera Gold (2020) – although even then, she’ll keep some secrets, even from Sherlock: “You know, when it comes to women, Mr. Holmes has always been just the teensiest bit naïve.”
Mycroft is here, too, of course, corpulent, pale, “an enigmatic and occasionally alarming figure whose authority with His Majesty’s government was as immense as it was undefined” (O Jerusalem). It amuses him to think of himself as a glorified accountant, “though it was quite literally true: He kept accounts….He accounted for political trends in Europe and military expenditures in Africa; he took into account religious leaders in India, technological developments in America, and border clashes in South America….He kept accounts of the ten thousand threads that went to make up the tapestry of world stability” (A Letter of Mary).
Mycroft is forever sending Russell and Holmes to help with those accounts. The trip to Palestine is at his behest, to India, to Roumania, to Morocco. Seldom are the missions quite what they seem, and the couple are starting to get fed up with his deceptions: “The next time Mycroft asks us to do something,” says Russell, “we really must say no.”
And with good reason. Mycroft is hiding a secret himself. In God of the Hive, we find out what it is. It almost gets them all killed.
Other familiar names pop up as well:
- Billy, the stalwart of the Baker Street Irregulars, whose origins intersect surprisingly with those of Clarissa Hudson;
- Watson, glimpsed only occasionally, though Russell feels sorry for him: “It occurred to me that Holmes was well accustomed to deceiving this man, because he was not gifted with the ability to lie, and thus quite simply could not be trusted to act a part. For the first time I became aware of how that knowledge must have pained him, how saddened he must have been over the years at his failure, as he would have seen it, his inability to serve his friend save by unwittingly being manipulated by Holmes’ cleverer mind” (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice).
- Irene Adler. Yes, her presence is felt as well. I won’t tell you how, you’ll have to discover it for yourself. But it’s spectacular.
And there’s one name you might not know. It’s that of Mary’s Uncle Jake, “the black sheep, the family rogue, whose exploits filled my childhood with admonitions over the dire and delicious consequences of misbehavior….The cautionary tales about Jake’s near-disasters had quite the opposite effect on my impressionable mind; namely the temptation to follow in his footsteps became irresistible” (“Mary’s Christmas,” Mary Russell’s War).
It is Uncle Jake who gave an eleven-year-old Russell the gift she carries with her forever after: a slim piece of wickedly sharp steel with a rosewood handle and straps to fasten it to her ankle. She has used that knife many times, and to great effect, not least of all after she has subdued a foul-mouthed armed thug in The Language of Bees, tied his hands and legs, and rolled him up in a carpet. Then she kneels beside him, shows him the red-stained knife – “a thin, shiny blade edged with scarlet” – then slowly licks it clean, pats her lips delicately, and slides it back into its scabbard.
“’You shouldn’t have cursed,’ I told him.”
It’s paint, not blood. But nobody messes with Mary Russell.
Someone else I suspect nobody messes with? Uncle Jake. We’ll all find out next year, 2025, promises Laurie R. King, when he comes back into Mary Russell’s life in the next installment.
As you’ve seen from all of the above, King likes to play with her chronology, teasing events, then skipping them entirely, until coming back to them with a bang in a later book. It seems like the actions of a meticulous planner, someone who knows just what kind of arc she wants, and plots it out accordingly.
You would be wrong.
“I’m not the kind of writer who creates meticulous plans – for a book, or a series, or indeed a life,” she’s said. “I’m more the ‘organic’ kind, who finds an interesting seed and plants it to see what will grow.
“This does not mean my books aren’t written to a very definite plan. As I’m writing, I can always feel when the story is going the way it’s meant to, and when it’s threatening to veer away. But where other writers work out their plan externally, on a sheet of paper, or a white board or Post-Its or what-have-you, for a writer like me, the outline lives in the darkest corners of the brain, doled out in bits and pieces as they’re needed. Usually greeted with cries of ‘Aha’ and ‘Oh, I see now’ and ‘Hey, what if I then….’
“This…method (may we call it that?) looks haphazard to the outside world. It’s undisciplined. Muddled. Amateur. And though I’ll admit that when I am deep in the throes of a tricky re-write, the second draft where a novel emerges out of a rough 300-page set of notes, it can feel a bit like struggling to bring a riot of anarchists to order. However, even at the most obstinate places, I never really doubt that the back of my head knows exactly where it’s going.
“At any rate, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
It’s a technique that mirrors her life in many ways. Her father, “a man with itchy feet,” moved them around so much that it wasn’t until she was in high school that she entered the same school in September that she’d been in the previous June. She was, she confesses, “socially inept, physically awkward, excruciatingly shy, and always an outsider,” so books became her companions and inspiration.
She can remember, in the first or second grade, composing a story about a small creature that lived under a hill, each line illustrated “with small, precise drawings of mysterious figures and round red doors set into grassy hillsides.” Unfortunately, she spent so much time on the drawings, she never finished the text.
“Thus, the writer’s first lesson: Finish the story.”
The family never had much money, and there was no way, she said, that they could afford putting her through college. In the end, she “more or less backed into university, when the aunt with whom I lived after finishing high school insisted I keep myself busy by enrolling in junior college.” There, she encountered a professor who introduced her to logic, philosophy, and religious studies, which in turn led her to the University of California, Santa Cruz’s program in religion, and finally, seven years later, (she had to work her way through) she had her BA.
Her master’s also took seven years, split up by work, marriage, travel, children, and house renovation. Her husband, Noel King, a former professor of hers, was “far better with a concordance than a circular saw,” and so she immersed herself in the world of “Skil saws, framing hammers, paintbrushes, and electrical drills. How-To books spring up like mushrooms beside my volumes of textual criticism and feminist theology. I became, quite literally, a home-maker.”
And then, at thirty-five, her children at school, and wondering what to do with her time, she sat down at that kitchen table and began to write. The core of the book, 280 pages, took her 28 days. Then she rewrote it, and then, not quite knowing what to do with it, she started another, which would ultimately become the third book in the series, A Letter of Mary. And then…she wrote yet a third, not a Russell book, but the story of a lesbian SFPD homicide inspector named Kate Martinelli.
Meanwhile, she’d started sending out the first book, then titled The Segregation of the Queen, to publishers, to no avail, and finally realized she could either write or send, but not both. She looked in the back of Writer’s Digest and found five agencies in San Francisco, and wrote to each of them, enclosing chapters of Queen and the Martinelli. The first agency said their client list was full. The second said they liked one, but not the other. The third liked the other, but not the one. The fourth said they’d read both books if she sent them $385 – for each. The fifth was a woman named Linda Allen. “I would love to represent you,” she wrote back, “but I have some problems with these two manuscripts.” She outlined the work she felt they needed, and noted, “The characters in either one of these books could develop into protagonists for a series. Do you agree?”
Laurie did. She reworked them both – and it was the police novel, A Grave Talent, that Linda Allen sold first. It was published in 1993. The Russell, now titled The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, followed the next year. It rather confused people. Were they actually by the same woman? They were so different! The first was a hard-driving third-person mystery; the second was a first-person period romp with more than a dash of humor. Yes, the publisher had to explain, the author was indeed the same, and for a while, the two series alternated, with a vigorous scattering of stand-alones thrown in along the way – at one point, her publisher’s sales and marketing departments threw up their hands and simply proclaimed, “Laurie R. King’s Next Book is Always a Mystery.”
Two weeks after Beekeeper’s publication, King’s editor informed her that A Grave Talent had been nominated for the Edgar award for first novel. When she got to the banquet, she was stunned to hear her book announced as the winner. “The only thing I’d ever won in my life was a box of brandied cherries at a community Bingo game, a prize quickly confiscated by my parents, as I was only ten at the time.” It then won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association.
Both series, as well as the stand-alone Folly (2001), have since gone on to win the Agatha, Macavity, Nero, and Lambda awards, and been a finalist for a slew of others, and her co-edited guide, How To Write a Mystery (2021), won the Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity.
And the plaudits continued.
In 2022, she won the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America for her body of work.
In 1997, she won an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, her old seminary.
It’s hard to decide which must have pleased her most.
I guess we’ll have to ask her.
The Essential King
With any prolific author, readers are likely to have particular favorites, which may not be the same as anyone else’s. Your list is likely to be just as good as mine – but here are the ones I recommend.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)
“The first thing I want the reader to know is that I had nothing to do with this book you have in your hand. Yes, I write mystery novels, but even a novelist’s fevered imagination has its limits, and mine would reach those limits long before it came up with the farfetched idea of Sherlock Holmes taking on a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen-year-old feminist sidekick. I mean, really.”
This is the opening premise for the series: that a UPS truck barreled down King’s driveway, delivering a trunk filled with garments, objects, and manuscripts, each of the latter bound with narrow purple ribbon and sealed with wax, stamped R. We’ll learn in Mary Russell’s War how King came to be picked, but in the meantime Beekeeper is an excellent introduction to the characters, settings, and style of the entire series, not to mention the kind of rip-roaring adventures that will ensue. The interplay between Russell and Holmes as their relationship evolves over the course of the novel’s four years from mentor and student to something much more complex is entirely credible, and the climactic events are dramatic indeed: “It burst upon us like a storm, it beat at us and flung us about and threatened our lives, our sanity, and the surprisingly fragile thing that existed between Holmes and myself.”
That may sound like hyperbole, but just wait till you get there.
O Jerusalem (1999)
“She is a jewel, that city, small and brilliant and hard, and as dangerous as any valuable thing can be.”
Russell and Holmes are about to find that out the hard way.
The Jerusalem of 1919 is a maelstrom, explains a British spymaster: “The French want it, the Arabs think it’s theirs, the Jews believe they were promised it, the British hold it, and General Allenby spends all the hours God gives him driving from Dan to Beersheva, calming arguments among the factions.”
“While you hear the rumor of distant wolves,” notes Holmes.
Disguised as Bedouin men, Russell and Holmes are paired up with two of Mycroft’s agents, a pair of Arab cutthroats who deeply distrust them. “You are an old man and she is a girl,” they say, not unreasonably. Over the next six weeks, mutual trust will have to be gained or it’s very likely none of them will survive. They very nearly don’t anyway. All around them is death and treachery, and as the tensions rise to the breaking point, the fate of the entire Middle East is in their hands.
It’s a good thing Russell knows how to use that knife. She’s going to need it.
An added enticement for the reader: King is brilliant in conjuring up the sights, sounds, and smells of both the city and the desert. You’ll feel like you’re walking down those streets yourself, that you’re breathing in the desert air. Great descriptive work.
Locked Rooms (2005)
“Holmes was intensely aware of the physical sensation of her arm on his. He generally was aware of her presence, that sturdy physicality wrapped around a magnificent brain and the stoutest of hearts. One flaw alone had he found in this incomparable hard diamond of a woman, an imperfection that had long puzzled him, and cost him no small amount of sleep….
“Fear had kept him silent….It had felt at times like watching a child’s block-tower continue to grow and wondering when it would topple and crash.”
It is 1924, ten years since the car crash that killed Mary Russell’s family and filled her sleep with nightmares – dreams of flying objects, a faceless man, a locked room. She knows she inadvertently caused the fatal accident, and will never get over that guilt, but what does all the rest of this mean?
They are in San Francisco now to settle her estate, but there is nothing settling about the revelations that keep coming her way. The sudden deaths of two family servants. The office break-in that causes the death of her former psychiatrist. That man in the street – was he pointing a pistol at her?
Soon, the narrative splits into two parts, as Russell continues to delve into these mysteries, while Holmes, with the help of a most unexpected local colleague named Hammett, pursues a much deeper question: Why can Russell not see that the crash that killed her family was not an accident – but murder?
What follows is as much a psychological thriller as a murder mystery, the events of three timelines and two separate investigations colliding into a shocking finale for Russell:
“I wanted to murder him. Then and there, I wanted to gut him and leave him bleeding his life out on the street, for what he had done…..I could almost taste the glory of revenge.”
This one’s a workout, and for both Russell and Holmes, nothing will ever be the same.
Book Bonus: Kate Martinelli
There’s a reason the Martinelli books hit the crime fiction world like a bombshell. They’re intelligent, intricate, deeply felt, psychologically acute, and filled with smart, thoughtful characters just trying to do their best in a violent and often bewildering world.
Kate is a SFPD detective newly appointed to homicide, sharp, perceptive, and with all her defenses up. First of all, she’s a woman in a heavily masculine world: “She must be tough but not coarse, friendly but not obsequious, unaggressive but ready without a moment’s hesitation to hurl into a violent confrontation.” Second, she’s a lesbian, but in the first book, A Grave Talent (1993), decidedly not out: “I can’t take the risk….How long before the looks and remarks start, before I start drawing all the real hard-core shit jobs, before I’m on call and someone refuses to deal with me because I’m that lez in the department and I might have AIDS.” It isn’t until the end of Grave, when her housemate and lover Lee Cooper is shot and critically injured, with a very long recovery period ahead, that she realizes she has no choice. Everyone will know who she is.
Her boss is Al Hawkin, smart, gruff, thickset, graying, and obsessed with his work; his wife, who is now gone, “had found him dismal company.” When he’s first assigned Martinelli, he hates it – “Christ Almighty…some nut is out there killing little girls….and you assign me some Madonna in uniform who was probably writing parking tickets until last week” – but he gradually changes his tune: “She doesn’t chatter. A person can think around her. Perhaps she wouldn’t be such a burden as he’d originally thought.”
Together, they navigate cases that all too often cross the boundary between the professional and the personal. There’s Lee’s crippling in A Grave Talent. In With Child (1996), Kate takes a trip with Jules, the precocious preteen daughter of Al’s new wife, and the girl disappears, possibly taken by a serial killer. In Night Work (2000), a feminist vigilante group committing acts of revenge around the city may have taken matters way too far – and Lee’s good friend and ex-lover Roz may be one of the ones involved. In the novella Beginnings (2019), someone close to Kate asks about Kate’s kid sister, who died in a car crash, rumored a suicide, in the 1980s. Digging into it now, she finds something much darker.
Meanwhile, we follow the arc of her relationship with Lee. Kate took five months of desk duty after Lee’s crippling, and the adjustment is hard for both of them. At the end of the second book, To Play the Fool (1995), Lee, in her wheelchair, leaves to rethink everything, and in With Child, Kate is drinking heavily and angrily wrestling with the fact that Lee’s been away for months. It isn’t until Night Work that we see Lee is back – “Kate did not yet know just what her lover had become, or what their relationship would become. All she knew was that Lee still chose to be with her; the rest of it would find its way” – and in the final pages of the last book, The Art of Detection (2006), Kate is ambushed by a surprise stop at City Hall, where an even bigger surprise awaits. “Roz thought,” says a friend, “that you and Lee might like to be among the first legally married lesbians in San Francisco.” Their three-year-old daughter squeals with joy.
A happy ending all around. Oh, and that last book? It could have been titled When Worlds Collide. It centers around the murder of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic named Philip Gilbert, his fellow Sherlockians, and a hundred-year-old manuscript purportedly by Holmes himself when he was in San Francisco, about an investigation that eerily echoes the details of the murder before Martinelli now: a case within a case.
It’s a bit head-spinning, even for her. At one point late in the book, Kate says to Al:
“ ‘I hope you’re not going to tell me Philip Gilbert was killed by a poison unknown to science.’
“He peered over the top of his reading glasses. ‘Had a bit too much of this detective story business, have we?”
“ ‘Bunch of loonies, all of them.’
“He nodded thoughtfully. ‘An attitude I always find productive.’”
Book Bonus II: Everything Else
As noted above, King is also the author of several other novels, and they’re all worthy.
Two of them, Touchstone (2007) and The Bones of Paris (2013), take place in Europe between the wars, and feature Bennett Grey, a human lie detector psychologically shattered by the Great War, and Harris Stuyvesant, an American Bureau of Investigation agent who enlists his help (and falls in love with Grey’s sister, Sarah). The books are strong, evocative, and full of period detail. I also have a slight weakness for Paris because it includes a cameo by the real-life Black nightclub impresario Bricktop, who knew everybody who was anybody in Jazz Age Paris, and whose memoir I published in 1983. I even had the pleasure of meeting her, a tiny, 89-year-old woman living in New York City, whose parting words to me were, “Now, don’t you go sleeping in any strange beds, honey!”
There’re also these five: A Darker Place (1999) centers on a woman who infiltrates a dangerous religious cult for very personal reasons; Folly (2001) is a mystery/thriller blend about a woman building a house on a tiny island (cue King’s construction skills!) and simultaneously being stalked; Keeping Watch (2003), an offshoot of Folly, features a damaged Vietnam vet who rescues victims from abusive families, but finds his last case to be singularly dangerous; Lockdown (2017) revolves around the many lives and secrets ricocheting around a middle school’s Career Day – and the heavily armed man driving there; and Back to the Garden (2022) is a novel about a grand estate, the troubled commune that once lived there, the fifty-year-old skeleton found on its grounds, and a serial killer.
Of these, my favorite is the last one, mostly because of its central character, Raquel Laing, a SFPD cold case investigator with great detective skills and approximately zero social aptitude. In fact, that’s why she is in this unit – her mentor has assigned her to it because it’s the best way to use her abilities without ruffling feathers, and that way he can keep an eye on her. The name of that mentor? Al Hawkin, Martinelli’s old partner, now “retired” to Cold Cases! He’s obviously used to brilliant, difficult women on his beat, but Laing will certainly test him. Late in the book, she finds herself musing, “Here’s the cliff Al told you not to go near, let’s step off it and take his reputation with us, shall we?”
Other LRK books include Califia’s Daughter (2004), a science fiction novel published under the pseudonym Leigh Richards; several Sherlock Holmes story anthologies co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger; and a number of nonfiction works, most notably three on crime and thriller writing, two of them co-edited with Michelle Spring, and the third, the aforementioned How To Write a Mystery, with Lee Child.
(Russell being introduced around a table of Bohemian artists)
“ ‘Ronnie’s a writer. He’s going to change the face of literature in this century, taking it well past Lawrence.’
“ ‘D. H.,’ Ronnie clarified, looking smug.
“I nodded solemnly, and gave way to an unkind impulse. ‘Are you published yet?’
“ ‘The publishing world is run by Philistines and capitalists,’ he growled.”
(The Language of Bees)
(Holmes, infuriated by an article by Arthur Conan Doyle gullibly endorsing a girl’s recent “photographs” of fairies in her garden)
“ ‘I am not a man much given to violence,’ he began, calmly enough, ‘but I declare that if that man Doyle came before me today, I should be hard-pressed to avoid trouncing him.… It is difficult enough to surmount Watson’s apparently endless blather in order to have my voice heard as a scientist, but now, when people hear my name, all they will think of is that disgusting, dreamy-eyed little girl and her preposterous paper cutouts. I knew the man was limited, but I did not even suspect he was insane!’
“ ‘Oh, well, Holmes.’ I drawled into his climbing voice, ‘look on the bright side….Now the British Public will assume that Sherlock Holmes is as much a fairy tale as those photographs and will stop plaguing you. I’d say the man’s done you a great service.’ I smiled brightly.”
(A Monstrous Regiment of Women)
(Queen Marie of Roumania speaking to Russell)
“ ‘I was pleased, while in London this summer, to discover a number of new detective-story writers. A woman named Christie seems most promising – do you know her? No? She’s quite clever.’”
(Russell with the Queen’s daughter, Ileana)
“’Your mother says you like detective stories.’
‘I do. They’re so clever, people like Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. However, I have to tell you, my heart belongs to Bulldog Drummond,’ said the future Queen.
“ ‘Good choice.’
“ ‘Though one does wish there were some girls in those stories. I tell Mother she ought to write tales where girls get into adventures, rather than fairy stories and romances, but she just says that nobody would believe them. Girls never get to have any adventures, do they?’
“ ‘Oh, you’d be surprised.’”
Meta Bonus II: Dashiell Hammett
“Hammett’s eyes fell at last to the cigarette his fingers had made. He ran a tongue along the edge, pressed it, and as he lit a match his eyes came back to Holmes’. ‘You’re that Holmes, aren’t you? The detective?’
“ ‘I am, yes.’
“ ‘I always thought….’
“ ‘That I was a fictional character?’
“ ‘That maybe there’d been some…exaggerations.’
“Holmes laughed aloud. ‘One of the inadvertent side-effects of Watson’s florid writing style coupled with Conan Doyle’s name is that Sherlock Holmes tends to be either wildly overestimated, or the other extreme, dismissed entirely as something of a joke. It used to infuriate me – Doyle’s a dangerously gullible lunatic – but apart from the blow to my ego, it’s actually remarkably convenient.’
“ ‘You don’t say,’ Hammett responded, clearly taken aback at the idea of the flesh-and-blood man seated in his living-room being considered a piece of fiction. And no doubt wondering how he would feel, were someone to do the same to him.”
(Holmes has just been told that a band of his Irregulars has arrived)
“His face lighted with joy, and as he galloped down the corridor towards the lift he cried, ‘Come, Russell, the game’s afoot!’
“Hammett, catching up his coat and walking beside me with more decorum, looked at me askance. ‘He actually says that?”
“ ‘Only to annoy me.’”