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Is Sherlock Holmes on his way out of this series?
on September 3, 2011
I loved the first book in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and have read every book in the series as soon as it was published. I was delighted from the start of the series when the young bluestocking, Mary Russell, met up with Sherlock Holmes. Their partnership was filled with erudite and witty repartee, and they traveled the world together sleuthing in ingenious disguises and using elaborate ruses to escape peril.
But then something strange happened. King began separating Holmes and Russell. When this trend began, the books would describe each of the partners' doings, which were bookended with scenes of them together. Later on, though, their time together became strictly limited and Mary's separate role was emphasized.
Pirate King takes this trend even further. In this book, Holmes is entirely absent for a good two-thirds of the book and the pair are together for very few pages. I would estimate that scenes of the two of them together total only about 20 pages or so out of more than 300 pages.
Mary is persuaded by Holmes and Inspector Lestrade to go undercover as a director's assistant with Fflytte Films as they head to Lisbon and Morocco to make a silent film about Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. "How can there be a silent film about an operetta?," I hear you ask. It turns out the project is about a film crew trying to make a film about The Pirates of Penzance. The play-within-a-play conceit becomes ever more elaborate, as Mary works with actors playing the parts of pirates, constables, British officers and coquettish daughters, and many of the actors turn out to be something other than what they seem.
Mary's task is to see what she can find out about Fflytte Films that might explain why crime seems to follow its films in ways related to the subject-matter of each film, and why the previous director's assistant disappeared before the crew left England for Portugal. A series of minor disasters besets the cast and crew in Lisbon, but real danger begins as their sailing ship approaches north Africa. In this third part of the book, Holmes has joined the cast incognito, as an actor playing the Major General, and he and Mary must rescue the party from grave danger. This third part of the book, which takes up a little over 70 pages, has all the derring-do, action and spirit that are lacking in the rest of the book. It is cleverly written in a way that I could imagine as a script for a silent film adventure story.
I'm puzzled why Laurie R. King has altered this series to de-emphasize the Russell/Holmes collaboration almost to the disappearing point. Having so much of the book devoted to Mary working alone forced it into an awkward first-person narrative that reads like a well-educated and earnest young businesswoman's travel diary. I wasn't particularly interested to read in detail about her dealings on behalf of and with the cast and crew, her seasickness, rehearsal travails and the like. (And I'll admit I was a little miffed by Mary's scornful attitude toward my beloved Gilbert & Sullivan.)
Though the book returned to the series' old form at the end, I couldn't help noticing that the subjects of Mary's investigation were mere afterthoughts in the resolution of the story. It made me wonder about the utility of so many of the previous pages detailing Mary's sleuthing.
Has Laurie R. King come to feel so restricted by the Russell/Holmes partnership that she separated them? Is the weight of Sherlock Holmes's legendary persona so burdensome that she wants to cut him loose? She's the creator and, of course, she's free to do that. But I'm one of those pesky fans who don't like to see a change in a series' winning formula.