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LITERARY TYPE: The UCSC-educated Laurie King's latest novel features a medieval literary archetype along with the headstrong Mary Russell and her partner Sherlock Holmes.
Santa Cruz author Laurie King gives Doyle's detective an update
By Sean Conwell
THERE EXIST a vast number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, from Mark Twain's Double Barrelled Detective Story to the animated series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. Even so, it's safe to say that local author Laurie R. King's novels featuring Mary Russell, protégé and wife of Sherlock Holmes, are among the very finest of these stories.
King's latest novel, The God of the Hive (Bantam, 2010; $25 hardcover) is the 10th installment in the Mary Russell series, and picks up right where her previous book left off. Holmes and Russell are on the run from the law after the events of The Language of Bees, in which the detectives battled a cult led by the psychotic Reverend Brothers. They are forced to split up, Holmes traveling to Holland with his long-lost son Damian and Russell escaping by airplane with Holmes' 3-year-old granddaughter Estelle. After crash-landing in England's Lake District, Russell and Estelle form an unlikely friendship with a mysterious hermit named Robert Goodman.
Goodman is a fascinating character who seems to embody the qualities of a Holy Fool, a forest sprite and a Green Man. "The Green Man" was, in fact, the working title for the book, and seems an appropriate starting point for a recent interview with King.
"I suppose Goodman comes from my BA at UC–Santa Cruz, which was in comparative religion," says King when asked what inspired the character. "The Green Man is a mythic figure out of the English countryside, the energy of spring and the green growth that comes up every year. And he—without giving away too much of the plot—he is ancient Britain, and certain other characters in the book are modern Britain, and the two are pitted against each other."
Holmes is, of course, another fascinating character. The most striking aspect of King's portrayal, besides how well it recreates the man from Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, is the changes she has made to him. He is older, and the world around him (it is now 1924) has changed dramatically. Though his skills are as strong as ever, he seems more vulnerable somehow. At one point, as Holmes eludes his enemies on the streets of London, he gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is "resuming a language once spoken fluently, whose nuances had grown rusty."
"Arthur Conan Doyle finished with Holmes at the very the eve of the Great War," explains King, "because in his mind Sherlock Holmes had no place in the Britain that existed after the war. I disagree with this. I thought that someone of Holmes' flexibility and creativity would have reinvented himself in the modern era."
Readers who are new to the Mary Russell series may be shocked at the idea of Holmes taking a brainy feminist as his partner, since his attitude toward women in the original tales is often scornful. King, however, points to the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia," in which Holmes is outsmarted by Irene Adler and henceforth refers to her respectfully as "the woman." "And I think that is true for my version of Holmes as well," says King, "that someone who can match his wit, male or female, is someone who has his admiration."
Russell can match anyone's wit, but in this new adventure she has the additional role of maternal figure for the young Estelle. "She's quite puzzled by the whole thing," King notes. "If this particular child were an ordinary one she might have more problems with it, but, being Sherlock Holmes' granddaughter, she is, as you might expect, a very peculiar child."
King is currently at work on her next novel, The Pirate King ("as in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance"), which will be her third Mary Russell mystery in a row. "It's going to be something of a farce," she hints.
LAURIE KING reads from 'The God of the Hive' on Tuesday, May 25, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. 831.423.0900.
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