Monday, August 24, 2009

A Letter of Mary

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of A Letter of Mary (St. Martin's, 1997).

In the third novel in her series of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels, Laurie R. King sees the couple's home ransacked and vandalized shortly after they take possession of a first-century papyrus which may be a letter from Mary Magdalene confirming what Christian doctrine has denied: that she was one of Christ's disciples. This happens while they are in London to identify the body of the scholar who left them the document for safekeeping. It looks like somebody wants this damning evidence silenced.

I find it strange, the way King captures the voices of other people's characters, and projects them to her audience, better than the ones that she created herself. By her third novel, she's got an amazing rhythm down for Sherlock Holmes, and writes him as well or better than any other writer of pastiches such as this. Mycroft, too, is as comfortable to read as it is watching Charles Grey put in a guest appearance in the 1980-90s Granada TV series. In fact, my interest in her revisionist novels was sparked by learning that Lord Peter Wimsey would be putting in a small cameo at some point. He's in this book for about five pages and he's so absolutely perfect that I can't help but wish that it was King who had received the job of completing Dorothy Sayers' unfinished Thrones, Dominations manuscript.

But Mary Russell herself I still have problems with. I can't visualize the character, much as I am trying. Sherlock Holmes's wife is a woman in her late forties trapped in the body of a 23 year-old. She never reads as being completely genuine to me, and is very much a product of the modern age, and not a character who could conceivably have been created in the 1920s. Further, the plot itself is very much of its time. Though it predates The Da Vinci Code by six years, it's still tapping into a very modern notion of the Church suppressing potentially ruinous old documents. Well, Irving Wallace's The Word, a book forgotten by everybody but me (and I only know it because David Janssen was in the TV adaptation), possibly started the zeitgiest back in 1972, but you still can't imagine a book with a mindset anything like this actually being written in the twenties.

That said, the book, while sometimes difficult for me to embrace because of the pecuilarities of the main character, is still a pleasant read. It's a story full of red herrings and misdirections, where avenues of investigation led me to expect an absolutely certain conclusion, and yet I was pleased and tickled to learn how very wrong I was. I wouldn't call this a great book, but it was certainly an entertaining one, and the three mornings I devoted to it were certainly well-spent. I shall have to tackle the fourth in the series next month.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Grant,

You are absolutely on the money regarding King's ability to write Holmes. She is one of the best around.

I thought several of the titles following The Beekeepers Apprentice did not live up to the same standard (as enjoyable as they were), but stick with it as there are some of the later books are knock-out - O Jerusalem, The Game, and Locked Rooms. Locked Rooms builds on Mary Russell's history, so not only is it an excellent novel but you get that extra bit out of it through knowing the characters (a bit like the "Orbit" episode of "Blakes 7" - Avon trying to throw Vila out of the shuttle airlock is a tense moment, but moreso if you are familiar with their friendship over the previous 50 or so episodes).