Laurie R. King stands alongside Ruth Rendell as one of my favorite mystery writers working today. Whenever a new book in her Mary Russell series (with Sherlock Holmes) comes out, I make a point of reading it as soon as possible. Although her stand-alone mysteries are nearly as wonderful as the Russell books, I haven’t sought them out as eagerly. It’s taken me nearly a year to get around to reading Touchstone.
This is perhaps King’s most ambitious novel yet. It takes place between the World Wars, which is not a new period for King—most of the Russell books take place in the 1920s—but the characters are new, and the plot felt more complex than is typical of her books. The main character is Harris Stuyvesant, an American agent from the Bureau of Investigation who has come to England to seek a man suspected of planting bombs in connection with a labor conflict. He is ostensibly being helped by Aldous Carstairs, who has some sort of mysterious and sinister role in the British intelligence, and Bennett Grey, a man with an unusual, almost supernatural ability that is particularly handy for someone investigating a crime. (The title of the book offers a big hint.)
King has a wonderful ability to craft mysteries that keep you on the edge of your seat but that also make you think about more substantial questions. She’s tackled religion, feminism, politics, domestic violence, and more without ever seeming preachy. Here she delves into the world of labor unions, Communism, anarchy, terrorism, and governmental authority. Her characters are always interesting people, and I really enjoyed how in this book she could make me feel sympathy for people who are doing despicable acts without ever seeming to condone their actions. Really, only one character is treated as a full-on bad guy.
As for the mystery itself, well, I figured out the key element early on, but that did not at all ruin the story for me. With King, figuring out whodunit is beside the point. How, why, when, and what then are the real questions. And when it comes to those questions, Touchstone offered lots of surprises along the way.
This is my first book in the RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) III challenge. Since I signed up for Peril the Second (read two books), I’m halfway done! (But I’m still hoping to read three.)