A Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novel #3
The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before.
The more I read of this series the more I come to love the characters, and indeed the whole set-up. Mary Russell is such a believable character, and King’s Holmes is just perfect.
The mystery at the heart of this novel concerns the death of Dorothy Ruskin. An archaeologist working in Jerusalem, she met up with Russell and Holmes when they travelled the area back in book one. In this book she comes to visit them, bringing with her an exquisite wooden box which contains a parchment on which is written a letter, from Mary of Magdala to her sister. Was it really written by the infamous Mary Magdalen? And was the car accident that killed her really an accident?
There are a number of leads and so Holmes and Russell separate to investigate the different suspects. Holmes goes undercover at Ruskin’s sister’s house, while Russell gets a job for a misogynistic Colonel who met with Ruskin before her death.
But to be honest the mystery aspect of this book wasn’t all that interesting to me. Sure I wanted to find out whodunnit, but I was much more entertained and entranced by the whole world that King creates. Russell is so well-written you just can’t help but be convinced by her, and by having Holmes described by her we have a perfect reason for any discrepancies between the Holmes of Conan-Doyle and this Holmes, that is the eye of the beholder. Watson and Russell are such different characters, and play such different roles that it is entirely possible to believe that they could both report the exact same details in totally different ways and with different reasons. And of course there is the fact that Holmes here is older, he has retired from London, and is married. A huge departure from Watson’s Holmes.
Apart from the characterisations, I also love the way that Russell brings the politics of gender into play. The 1920s were a time of change after all. Society was still dealing with the after-effects of The Great War, and women were fighting for the right to be heard. Colonel Edwards is in many ways an intelligent, if slightly boorish and old-fashioned, individual yet his hatred of the suffragette movement is such that Russell thinks him capable of violent action. What would he do if his religion was threatened by a letter that identifies Mary Magdalene as an apostle of Jesus?
I think that is what I love most about these books. In a way they are written with modern sensibilities, but at the same time Russell is so aware of how other people react to her simply because she is a woman that there is no avoiding the fact that gender is a huge limiting factor on what she can and cannot do. There is also a wonderful description of her getting her undercover costume ready, and the creation of a woman she called “Mary Small” who will be able to get close to Edwards without threatening him. Such small details give so much information.