Tag Archives: mystery

Skipping around: Three Mary Russell books (Yo52B #18, 28 and 31)

I’m skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren’t those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven’t, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I’ve spoken to you at all in the past two years there’s a 90% chance I’ve recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910’s and 1920’s who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King’s Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I’ve read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King

****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O’Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what’s coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I’d heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that’s because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn’t work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary’s parents’ estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven’t started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You’ll Be Glad You Read list.

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Year of 52 Books #8: The Woman in White

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

****

This was a re-read for my book club, but it’s a book I love. The first time I read this book, I was reading it online on Project Gutenberg during my breaks at work. My husband and I were getting ready to move around this same time, and the move date (when we’d be without internet for a couple of days) coincided with my reaching the part where Things Start to Get Really Good. I was also going to be taking a couple of days off work for both the move and my little sister’s wedding (yeah, I know, we have *great* timing), and I could not bear the thought of waiting that long to find out what happened, so I ended up taking time out from packing to run to three bookstores to find a copy because the first two were out.

And I’m glad I did. I think this was my fifth read of this book (yeah, I re-read a lot. I’ll discuss that in another post sometime) and the first time reading it with the specific plan of discussing it with other people, so it was fun to see what themes I picked up on this time that I had missed before or forgotten about.

This book is an early mystery novel of sorts, involving a strange woman in white, two half-sisters, a drawing teacher, a brutish baronet, an invalid uncle, assorted old ladies and a sinister count. Add mistaken identities, lunatic asylums, trained white mice, kidnapping, doomed love, sea voyages, attempted murder, arson, forgery, slander, scandal, and opera-loving Italians of all shapes and sizes to the mix and you have the makings of 400-ish pages of a whole lot of fun.

What can I say? I can’t really sum up the plot of this book succinctly, partly because Collins is anything but succinct. It’s told as a series of first-person narratives, ostensibly so that no part of the story is given second- or third-hand; each part of the story is related by an individual who was actually there to see it or take part. This is great but it means that when Walter is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of extraneous matter about how wonderful and beautiful and perfect Laura is, and when Marian is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of (unconvincing) regrets about how she can’t do anything to save them because she is only a weak woman.

Let me take a break here to say the lady doth protest too much. Wilkie Collins, in Marian Halcombe, appears to have created a character he didn’t quite know what to do with or how to control. She’s smart, she’s sassy, she’s resourceful, she’s basically awesome, but he needed Walter to be in love with Laura instead, you know, for plot reasons, so it feels like he had to keep artificially hobbling Marian to keep her from becoming the main love interest. To do this he specifies that she is ugly (yes, he even goes so far as to give her a bit of a mustache) and keeps having her remind us all that she is only a woman, and what can women do? A heck of a lot, Marian, as you keep showing at every turn. Seriously, Laura’s great and all, but you’re the heroine of this story in my book and only the VILLAIN has the sense to see it. Yeah, you read that right, the hero is in love with bland and actually-helpless and feminine to the core Laura, while the villain has the good sense to fall madly in love with spunky Marian.  (Actually, in the not-really-faithful-at-all 1930’s movie adaptation, the filmmakers DID make Marian the main love interest, kind of the same way that people can’t help but tinker with Fanny Price. This was possible because in the movie Marian did not have a mustache.)

Wilkie, your character was too good for you, and I hope you realize it. (I think you do, because you do have Walter, in his brief pauses between rhapsodizing on Laura’s perfections, mention how amazing a person and what a staunch ally and good friend Marian is. And hey, she’s the one he takes into his confidence when plotting! Seriously, the only thing keeping this woman from taking over the show is that tacked-on mustache. In my mind I see it kind of like a Mr. Potato Head accessory; just shoved on there as an afterthought once the author realized that he’d painted himself into the corner where his reader was naturally going to be rooting for the hero to get with the wrong girl.)

But even with these flaws, I still really enjoy this book. It’s long; it’s an investment and fun to curl up with knowing that you’ll be taking a long journey together. And the good news is that (other than the aforementioned rhapsodizing and self-deprecation from our respective main characters), there isn’t much wasted space (okay, okay, so a few of the landscape descriptions could also have been dropped). What I mean is, all the PLOT elements come back together; even what seem like throw-away bits end up being important to the story later.

If you can get past some Victorian stereotypes, can tolerate unnecessary facial hair, and like fun mystery-type stories, I recommend The Woman in White. It’s worth it, I promise. (Seriously. Just wait till you meet Fosco. He must be seen to be believed.) Four stars.

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