Thursday, September 24, 2009

O Jerusalem

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of O Jerusalem (Bantam, 1999).

This one was a bit of a challenge. After four novels in her series of revisionist Sherlock Holmes stories, Laurie King elected to use the fifth to plug an old plot hole in the first, throwing off and disappointing any reader who was hoping to see the characters grow and progress. Back in that first novel (reviewed here), Holmes and his protege Mary Russell are forced to flee England after their unseen foe proves, with a bomb attack, that she's one step ahead of them. The narrative then skips forward, noting that it was many months before they could return, and that Mycroft Holmes had found a job for them in British-occupied Palestine, among other travels.

So O Jerusalem is the story of that job, and it's a real slog to get through. I can understand why King wished to come back to it. The fourth book in her series, The Moor, vividly brings the location to life, so that it is as much a character in the story as any human, and King's lingering discussion of topography and history is as entrancing as the most satisfying backstory and character development. She clearly had developed the talent, over the course of her nineties work, to attempt the same here, with endless, detailed focus on the desert sands, the cities they visit, and the difficulties in Russell adapting to the Holy Land's culture.

Yet it doesn't work for me, not at all. You may chalk this up to personal disinterest in the region or my deficiencies as a prose reader if you like, but to be honest, the "leaving the country" material in The Beekeeper's Apprentice was easily the only skippable section of that novel for me, and in the short space of a few months between reading Apprentice and this, I had entirely forgotten that Holmes and Russell had left England at all. As a character piece, hiding Mary Russell under shoe polish and spectacles and posing as a quiet and unassuming man lost its luster almost instantly, and as an adventure story, the hundred-odd pages of running in circles, our heroes "tested" by their minders in the Holy Land before being trusted to meet the local spymaster who needs them to uncover and foil an assassination scheme, are agonizing. After a day's reading, I realized that I still had no idea what the plot of this novel was, and became frustrated and bored as King lingered on one set piece after another, looking for any kind of narrative thread to link them.

All of this compounds the basic problem going into the book in the first place. In each of the previous four novels in the series, King was able to surprise and blindside me with a new development of the characters and their relationship, and these "reveals," the understanding that what will come next, are part of the thrill of reading the stories in the first place. That's a testament to King's skill at making believable, engaging characters and more than just another dry Holmes pastiche. But we already know going in what will come next for Holmes and Russell going in to O Jerusalem: they'll go back to England and finish that more interesting adventure. Even to somebody who's begun this series, I can't recommend this book at all. I've certainly no interest in trying it again.

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