I’m a long-time fan of Laurie King’s Holmes/Russell series, so the title of this, the fourteenth, is calculated to make me shiver. (I did wonder, though — “of” is such a two-edged preposition.) King has done a lot of different things with this series over the years, ranging all over the world (Palestine and Japan are two of the most memorable) and from quite dark to almost frothy in tone. I therefore couldn’t be surprised when the bulk of this entry wasn’t even about Holmes or Russell, but about one of their closest associates, and didn’t take place in the after-1914-Holmes-is-ours era, but in the Conan Doyle pre-Russell time.
The story opens when a strange man takes Russell hostage in her own home. She quickly deduces that he is Samuel, Mrs. Hudson’s nephew, who is looking for something in Mrs. Hudson’s belongings. Russell cooperates, hoping that she’ll be able either to figure out what he’s after or to strike back and escape. But when Mrs. Hudson and Holmes return, they find a ghastly pool of blood on the floor, and no way of telling whether Russell is still alive for them to rescue.
The arrival of Samuel and the violence get the book off to a rousing start, but most of the book delves into Mrs. Hudson’s past, when she was Clarissa, learning scams at her father’s knee. She, her father, and her younger sister come to London when Clarissa is a young girl, and Clarissa’s natural acting talent earns them money and eventually raises them into a precariously high social position.
One of the interesting things about this book is that King shows how bright and talented Clarissa is, while demonstrating how limited her options are. She has a very slim chance at education, even though she values it. She’s dominated by her dishonest father, even after she’s become the major talent in their “cheat.” She’s vulnerable to moral judgment and to pregnancy. Her main defense against this world is being someone other than herself, until the carapace becomes the skin. Later, when she meets Holmes at a crisis point in her life, it doesn’t put him in a flattering light; this is many years before his epiphany that a woman can be intelligent or worthy of his attention.
Once I realized that this was a Clarissa Hudson novel and not a Holmes/Russell novel (though they do show up quite a bit!) I was able to relax into it and enjoy it thoroughly. (And I was right to wonder about that preposition…) This is such a wonderful series, and I look forward to the next one eagerly.