Monday, August 12, 2013

The God of the Hive

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The God of the Hive (Bantam, 2010).

It's really not fair to be disappointed by a story because it doesn't fit into your preconceived fan notions and your narrative. The story is the author's narrative, not yours. Yours are only wishes. The author is under no obligation to grant them.

Back in the second of Laurie R. King's novels of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, there is a fleeting reference to Holmes having a son, Damian. The matter is shoved under the rug. Now, among some Holmes fans - by no means a majority or a consensus - there's a belief that during the "missing years" after Reichenbach Falls, Holmes looked up Irene Adler and spent some time with her and they had a son. Among some of that subset of fans - by no means a majority or a consensus - there's a belief that Adler raised their son on her own, and that boy grew up to be Nero Wolfe. That is the greatest fan theory of them all. I love it to pieces.

Sadly, King belongs to the first camp but not the second. And I felt so certain that she was One Of Us. It was a writer named William S. Baring-Gould who concocted the "son of Sherlock" theory in 1962. King had already included this man's real-life grandfather, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, as a character in the fourth of her series of novels, The Moor, and revealed that the reverend was Holmes' godfather. So it's not like she could have been unaware of this theory. She just had another direction for the son of Sherlock.

Before continuing, I should point out that one writer has, using a pseudonym for the still-copyrighted Wolfe, written two novels set during World War One in which Holmes and his son, "Auguste Lupa," work together. The writer is John Lescroart, and I enjoyed those books so darn much that I started reading his subsequent, much longer series of contemporary legal thrillers featuring a revolving series of featured protagonists. A lawyer named Dismas Hardy takes the lead role in most of these books, and I enjoy that universe so darn much that I'm forever in Baring-Gould's debt for coming up with the theory, because I'd probably never have made my way, via Lupa, to the wonderful world of Hardy, Abe Glitsky and Gina Roake without it.

And I should point out how selfishly disappointed I was in Robert Goldsborough's recent Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a book which is solid and entertaining and doesn't do a darn thing wrong except miss out on the spectacular opportunity to introduce a Wolfe who had not established his routine yet. I really wanted to see a man on the cusp of becoming that set-in-stone icon, still putting his ready-for-caricature rules together.

So when Damian Adler showed up at Holmes and Russell's door at the beginning of 2009's Language of Bees, a book that I read in late June, I punched the air with excitement because - surely! - we were about to meet the proto-Wolfe. We don't. There's just no way that Damian could possibly be the same man.

The Language of Bees and 2010's God of the Hive are so closely joined that they might as well have had "part one" and "part two" inscribed on them. It's one very long epic, set over the course of several weeks that sees Damian swallowing his pride and asking his father for help in finding his missing wife. In short order, he also goes missing and his wife's body is discovered, and the police want a word or two with him, and with Holmes and Russell about what they know. The powerful cult leader at the center of things - sort of a pastiche of Alistair Crowley - looks set to be one of Holmes' greatest adversaries, particularly when "part one" ends in a remote corner of Scotland, with Holmes and the grievously wounded Damian looking for discreet medical attention, while Russell, trying to get Damian's small daughter - good heavens, our 24 year-old heroine is a step-grandmother! - back to London, realizes that their enemy was not killed as they believed, and is still alive...

God of the Hive then twists things even more deliciously, as it's revealed that the cult leader is himself a patsy for an even more powerful villain, a master manipulator who removes even the mighty Mycroft Holmes from the state of play. King then pulls a twist about Mycroft that's so remarkable that I broke apart completely, abandoning every rule that I hold dear, and thumbed through the back twenty pages of the book because - surely not! - I just could not believe her moxie in doing that. I'm not going to tell you what "that" is, but it's sort of like asking whether Molly Ivins can say that (can she?) after she'd already said it.. Nope, there it is. She did it. (Well, that would be telling.)

The whole book's a headspinner, with new characters dropped into the narrative like small atomic bombs, their loyalty questionable and their motives uncertain. The most bewildering is this lord of misrule type, who's a mad mix between Robin Goodfellow and Lord Sebastian Flyte, and how trustworthy this guy is, even after finishing the book, I can't say. What I can share is that even though parts of the story had me biting my lip in unhappiness over the direction things were going, I was completely and thoroughly unable to guess what would possibly be happening next, and who would be safe. This is the tenth book in the series. For any series to go on so long and still be so completely unpredictable is a really good thing indeed.

Now if somebody, somewhere, would kindly write me some dense, novel-length fanfic set in 1924 involving Russell, Holmes, and a son who's a decade away from becoming Nero Wolfe when he moves to Manhattan, and which is one-tenth as engaging and as weird as this, I'll pay decent money. Not a lot, but decent. I wish that I had the talent to write it myself.

Heh. If I did, I'd have to use pseudonyms for Wolfe and for Russell. Laws!

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