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Mystery Smile: Laurie King brings her eighth Mary Russell mystery novel to town.

Unlocking Fact and Fiction

Laurie R. King's 'Locked Rooms' mixes Dashiell Hammett and Sherlock Holmes

By Rick Kleffel

Even the title is iconic, evocative. Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King (Bantam; 416 pages; $24 cloth) finds this local author at the absolute top of "the Game." In this case, however, the game is not espionage, but rather the writing of top-notch mystery novels. From the outside, it's easy to think that the locked rooms of the title are cages meant to contain this particular novel. After all, King has given herself a rather narrow focus. This is her eighth Mary Russell novel, and Mary is finally arriving at her familial home to settle her estate in the company of husband Sherlock Holmes. They haven't even managed to return home from their previous adventure. The trip to San Francisco is supposed to be a minor stop on the way home. It proves to be a major novel for Russell and King, a dense, historical mystery that is compelling and simply lots of fun to read.

Even as she approaches her home, Mary Russell finds that her sleep is interrupted by dreams. Soon, she's losing more than sleep. She's putting herself in needlessly dangerous situations and experiencing blackouts. But before she can become an unreliable narrator, Sherlock Holmes and Laurie R. King come to her rescue, taking over the storytelling chores to turn this into a most unusual Mary Russell novel.

With seven first-person Mary Russell novels behind her, King experiments by writing large portions of this narrative in the third person. It's a gamble that pays off handsomely. The shifting points of view allow King to offer more detailed and varied characterizations, not only of Holmes and Russell, but of the rest of the cast as well. Russell, who has always functioned at a Holmesian level, now finds herself unable to adequately deal with the challenges that surround her. For the first time, we see her more as a vulnerable woman than an ever-capable partner to Holmes. Not too vulnerable though: she still knows how to handle a gun, and even in her weakest moments, she's a formidable ally--or antagonist.

Holmes remains remote, yet, paradoxically, we get closer to him than ever. As with Russell, Holmes seems humanized by King's approach. Readers can't help but feel privileged to finally get a glimpse into the mind of the man who is Russell's equal.

Tom Long, the son of Russell's parents' servants, is the kind of character that any ongoing mystery series requires to thrive. Within the context of this novel, he's as fully realized as Holmes and Russell, and he's matched by King's real coup here, the inclusion of Dashiell Hammett as a character. With Hammett, King provides more fun than readers have any right to expect. And she faces without fear the conundrum of having fictional characters meet historical characters and comment on their own fictional existence.

The other character to star in this novel is the city of San Francisco. King's re-creation of the city after the quake of 1906 is wonderfully nuanced, filled with telling details. Surely King's own experience of our catastrophic 1989 earthquake helped inform her vivid re-creation. The layers of history covered are fascinating and offered with the kind of conviction that lifts the novel beyond any genre. This is a meticulously researched, perfectly balanced mix of action, history and character development. And King puts all this together with a dollop of droll humor.

It's clear that Locked Rooms gets a jolt of energy from all the local connections. Writing here on her home ground, King seems more at ease than ever.

Laurie R. King appears Friday, July 29, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., in "A Night of Mystery." (831.423.0900)

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From the July 6-13, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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