As the 15th (!) book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series opens, Russell and Holmes are dealing with a minor domestic crisis—an indirect outcome of their previous adventures in The Murder of Mary Russell. But domesticity never lasts long for this couple, and it doesn’t take long before Mary is drawn into a mystery involving her old friend Ronnie Fitzwarren, a character introduced way back in book 2 of the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. Ronnie’s aunt Vivian, who was recently released from Bethlem Royal Hospital (aka Bedlam) to attend a family birthday party, is missing, along with the nurse who was taking care of her.
The investigation takes Russell into Bedlam, and then to Venice, where she and Holmes become part of the Venice party circuit, crossing paths with Cole Porter. Meanwhile, Holmes has been asked by his brother Mycroft to see what he can learn about the rising Fascist movement in Italy.
Teresa: I continue to be amazed at how Laurie King keeps delivering great stories. This book is perhaps not as inventive as some of her previous ones, but it includes all the things I love most about the series. Explorations of new places, brushes with history, clever disguises, Russell’s cranky attitude, and a thrilling chase or two. What did you think?
Jenny: One of the things I’ve always loved about King’s novels is the different places we get to visit with her. (I loved her recent Dreaming Spies, for instance, set partly in Japan.) Venice was wonderfully evoked her, and I completely enjoyed both the wildness of the party scene and the strange, upside-down nature of it.
It made sense to me that Ronnie Fitzwarren would be the instigator of this adventure, evoking A Monstrous Regiment of Women as she does. This book is about “monstrous” women, too, and what might get them those labels. I was really interested in the book’s consideration of women’s madness, and the way it’s twisted up with both sexuality and sexual orientation. For a party book, it’s pretty complex.
Teresa: Yes, and timely, given how quick our culture still is to label women as hysterical or unbalanced when we are being passionate. In the book, owning the label of madness can become a form of liberation. It allows these women a way to escape from the expectations of the world. It fascinated me that the parts of Bedlam that Russell visited were actually somewhat peaceful — not a place most of us would choose to live in, but also not the hall of horrors associated with the name.
There were also some intriguing moments related to Russell and Holmes’s relationship. Their age difference doesn’t get that much attention in the books, but it seemed like an undercurrent in the descriptions of Russell choosing unusual frocks and going to parties on the Lido. I didn’t get the sense that Russell had regrets, but there did seem to be undercurrents of “what might have been” if she had made different choices. And all of that feeds into questions of identity and how we become who we are.
Jenny: I think the label of “monster” that gets attached to the women is subtly opposed to the actual monsters: the Blackshirts, who are slowly becoming more popular in Italy, and who are specifically targeting women (among other people.) Who is believed, and who gets to spin the narrative?
I was interested in Holmes and Russell’s relationship, too. They’re separated for much of the book, pursuing their own agendas and reporting to each other at the end of the day, so it doesn’t have the same feeling of a shared investigation until about the last third of the novel. But then things seem to come together in an invigorated way, with a deepened understanding of their roles with each other. The structure felt fresh and fun.
I sometimes feel odd about including real-life people in novels, but it was a treat to meet Cole Porter among the Bright Young Things in Venice. I thought King’s portrayal of his marriage and his sexuality was nuanced, and I liked the way his music wove into it.
Teresa: I know what you mean about real-life people in fiction, but I usually enjoy the way King does it. She doesn’t attempt to give a full and comprehensive picture of these people’s lives, just a glimpse, enough to make inquisitive readers want to know a little more. And in this case, the Porters provide a counterpoint to the Russell/Holmes marriage, which is unconventional in entirely different ways. In both cases, there’s a real partnership, built on respect and affection that others may not understand but that works for them.
And that takes us back to Lady Vivian and her partner, choosing a life that works for them, even if it doesn’t make sense from the outside. I wonder, though, if King is going to start delving more into the rise of fascism, which puts all these lives under threat.