Reading Journal Entry: Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

This will be the first of two Sherlock Holmes pastiches I am reading back to back.

It's a curious thing about Sherlock Holmes. He's one of the most well-known characters in modern literature; even his profile (with hat and pipe) is easily recognizable. Yet few have actually read the original Conan Doyle stories.

There's a reason for this. They're not much fun to read. They were groundbreaking and genre-creating, but they're a bit dry for the modern taste. You can't figure out whodunnit from the clues within the stories (unless you're a connoisseur of African poisons). Nevertheless there's fertile ground in the characters of the angular analytical detective and his beefy sidekick that has fueled dozens of pastiches and take-offs, from straight-up imitations (is this the original fanfic?) to the duo's spiritual heirs Poirot and Hastings (Batman and Robin?)

Today I am reviewing one of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels; tomorrow I will review Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary, allegedly the first Holmes novel commissioned by the Holmes estate.

Pastiche authors always have the problem of what to do with Doyle. Doyle had quite the hyperactive imagination and got a bit wonky as he aged (what with the believing in fairies thing and all) so he can be a bit of an embarrassment. Writers can either write completely within the Holmes universe, or, as many do (including King), pitch Doyle as Watson's 'literary agent' and play with Sherlock Holmes' notoriety as a consulting detective.

King transplanted Holmes a few years forward in time so as to allow him to survive into the twentieth century, and paired him up with a brand new sidekick - Mary Russell, the English-Jewish 'sweet young thing' whom he first took under his wing as an investigative partner and then married. The books are generally written from her point of view and are much more modern in their sensibilities than the originals; forgivably, given the narrator. King loves to delve deep into the underbelly of the human psyche and she generally succeeds in combining some lovely human mysteries with her criminal ones. Locked Rooms isn't the best Russell novel; it is heavily weighted toward the human and the mystery is woefully inadequate to sustain the psychological archaeology. On the other hand, it will please existing fans, because it does explain one of the seminal events of Mary Russell's past and sends the pair where they have never gone before - Prohibition-era America. Lots of opportunity for whimsy.

King inserts a real-life character into the middle of the narrative in a way I don't entirely approve of; and when I, an entirely forgiving reader, stop in the middle of a book and say out loud, 'I don't think I buy this', then the author has gone too far.

Not her best work.

1 comment:

Richard Mason said...

To the spiritual heirs of Sherlock Holmes, add Dr. House of the current TV show House, M.D., who is basically the incarnation of Holmes as a consulting physician. I've been watching the re-runs of the first season. House is a lanky misanthrope, with a drug problem, who deduces the correct explanation, however improbable*, by eliminating the impossible. The Dr. Watson character is fractured into one friend and a team of three assistants.

As you say of the Holmes mysteries, it's basically impossible to solve House's cases before House does (even, I suspect, if you have a medical education, which I don't). Nevertheless, they are interesting.

(* Improbable: in one case the explanation was that the patient had contracted both leprosy and anthrax.)