How’s that for a title to make long-time fans of a series nervous? The fourteenth book in Laurie R. King’s Russell/Holmes series begins with Russell facing down an unexpected visitor in her and Holmes’s Sussex home. The intruder appears to be housekeeper Mrs. Hudson’s son, Samuel. He’s after something, and although Russell suspects he’s up to no good, she tries to help, hoping that she’ll be able to figure out what he’s really after—and when he pulls a gun, she hopes that being helpful will keep her from being shot until she gets a chance to strike back or escape.
But when Mrs. Hudson comes home from her shopping Russell is gone, and there’s a pool of blood on the floor. It’s up to Holmes to figure out what happened and rescue his wife, if she’s even still alive.
Mary’s confrontation with Samuel gets the plot moving and raises the stakes, but most of this novel takes place in the past, when young Clarissa Hudson discovers her talent for “Cheats.” Clarissa and her father, James, pick pockets and scam the moneyed all over Australia before making their way to England, where they launch a long game intended to get Clarissa into loftier social circles. They slowly work their way up and have some success, until Clarissa begins to have her own ideas and desires.
One of the pleasures of this series is how King doesn’t confine herself to England in the early 20th century. She takes Holmes and Russell all over the world, to Palestine and Portugal and Japan. This time, she travels into the past, focusing the action on 19th-century London, with brief sojourns into Australia. She takes her inspiration from the Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.” I haven’t read that story, and I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, but I did find some of the character relationships confusing, and I wonder if reading the original story would have helped.
Honestly, though, I read this series for the characters more than the details of the mysteries. It was fun to get this look at Mrs. Hudson, although some of what’s revealed is unsettling and doesn’t cast Holmes in a particularly good light. It’s a complicated relationship, to put it lightly. And I missed seeing him with Russell. Actually, I just missed seeing Russell. She’s the highlight of the series for me, and a book that keeps her on the periphery is never going to be as good as a book where she’s at the center.