The publication of a new Mary Russell novel is always a source of celebration. I’ve been following this series by Laurie King since its early days, shortly before the publication of the fifth book in 1999, and I remain impressed at how well the series has maintained its high quality. Dreaming Spies, the 13th Russell novel, scheduled for publication on February 17, is not among my favorites in the series, but it’s still quite entertaining.
The novel begins in 1925 with Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes returning to England after a long nonstop series of adventures. Mary is ready for a rest, so she heads to her Oxford home only to find a young Japanese woman in her house, bleeding and looking for help. At that point, the book flashes back to 1924, just after the events in The Game. Russell and Holmes are taking a ship from Bombay to Japan, en route to California, where Russell can attend to some long-neglected family business (as depicted in Locked Rooms).
Also aboard ship is the alleged blackmailer Lord Darley and Haruki Sato, a young Japanese women from a family of acrobats. Russell and Holmes keep a wary eye on the one while getting to know the other. After the reach Japan, they find out how the two are connected as they embark on a new adventure. An adventure involving Japanese baths, the work of Matsuo Bashō, and some ninjas.
One of the joys of this series is the way King takes figures of literature and legend and makes them feel real. She’s done that with Holmes of course, but also with Kipling’s Kim, the legendary Green Man, and now the ninja of Japan. I have no sense of how likely her version of ninja might be, but the history feels plausible. And it’s fun to see Russell and Holmes up against a team with skills similar to their own, but developed within a different culture. (Another pleasure of these books is the way King takes her characters outside England, giving readers a wider view of the world of the early 20th century.)
As I mentioned, this wasn’t one of my favorites in the series. It seems to take a while to get going. It wasn’t until almost the midpoint of the book that the central mystery is established. There were also fewer great character moments than I’d like. There’s also the fact that I picked up on multiple hints before Mary did. There were two revelations presented as great shocks that looked obvious to me from the get-go. King generally plays fair in setting up her mysteries, so that’s always a danger, but this may be the first time I was surprised at Mary’s surprise. My being a step ahead of the detective isn’t enough to set me against a mystery, this was something unusual for this series.
This may not be among the top tier of Russell and Holmes adventures (the top tier is home to A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, O Jerusalem, Locked Rooms, The Language of Bees, God of the Hive, and Garment of Shadows), but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent book. An average book in an above average series is still an above average book overall.
I received a copy of this book for review consideration through the LibraryThing Early Review program.