AUTHOR: Laurie R. King

PUBLISHER: Bantam Books

ISBN: 978-0804177962 Hardcover

ISBN: 978-0804177979 E-book

It would be great if we could agree on what number in the series this book is, but it is uncertain. The publisher lists 17 previous titles in the front of this book. Amazon lists it as #11. Another authoritative mystery website shows it as #17. Just be aware that there are a lot of books ahead of this one in the popular best-selling series. The series has five awards and one nomination, so far. This alone should tell you what the bottom line of this review is going to be….

Let’s pretend you’ve never heard of this series. Among mystery fans, that’s not likely, but we’ll pretend. In the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, one of the award winners, we meet a teenage girl, Mary Russell, who intrigues the old semi-retired Sherlock Holmes in his beekeeper phase of life. She is brilliant and extremely capable in all sorts of covert activities. They form a loose partnership as he teaches her his methods. He is the mentor and she is avid learner.

As the years pass, she matures, their relationship changes, and finally they marry and become partners in detection—a team like no other in world-class brilliance and competence. These things develop in all those books in the series before this one.

Frankly, I was reluctant to read the series in the beginning. While I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes stories by his creator, I had absolutely no interest in reading imitations by other authors. When I finally broke down and read the first book, I had to rethink my philosophy—because the book was fascinating. The Mary Russell character was new, fresh, and fascinating. And hoary old Sherlock was still himself. I believed it was really Sherlock. Thus, over the years since the series began in 1994, I’ve eagerly read each new entry in the series without any disappointments.

Given that background, I have to tell you NOT to read this book without having read earlier books in the series. You really need to get to know these characters in some of their earlier adventures before this one will be satisfying.

Before we get to the story, let me tell you about Laurie R. King. I perceive in Ms. King's books a frequent theme of people who are out of the ordinary, who are unusual, different, and often alone.  She certainly has a hearty sympathy for lesbians and by extension, male homosexuals.  In other books, we encounter people with psychological oddities, mental illnesses, and other quirks.  Her characters want independence, especially the women.  The Mary Russell series is a great example of her characters who are out of step with the times and normal situations.  Consider Sherlock Holmes--an odd duck in any circumstances--and his mentorship (at the beginning) of a teenage girl of surpassing intelligence and competence.  Then eventually they marry--he is at least twice her age and they are about as an odd a couple as can be imagined.  

Now, about the story. In this book we meet the aunt of one of Mary's oldest friends. She is an unmarried noblewoman of small stature and delicate psyche.  She has been in and out of insane asylums (including England's infamous Bedlam) since a teenager.  At the outset of this story, the aunt, Lady Vivian Beaconsfield, has disappeared along with her nurse from Bedlam.  She conspired to take with her the family diamonds ("the family jewels" is too cliché, even if it is totally accurate) and a few other valuable items that are rightfully hers from her brother's safe.  Her brother is her guardian, since she is female, unmarried, and of uncertain mental competence.  

Mary's friend asks Mary and Sherlock to find her aunt.

In the ensuing investigation, troubling facts surface concerning the brother's guardianship.  The Marquess of Selwick is a misogynistic tyrant of undeniable greed and self-importance.  He is attracted to the politics of fascism, as this is the time between the Great Wars when Mussolini has taken over Italy.

The investigation leads to Venice, where the missing aunt and her nurse may have gone.  Holmes and Russell go there.  Holmes, as Mr. Russell, is in disguise as a middle-aged violinist.  He is also there on a mission from Mycroft, his brother and higher-up in British intelligence and government, to investigate the fascists and their progress in ruling Italy, specifically in what they will do with Venice.

Holmes makes friends with Cole Porter, the composer, who is in residence with his wealthy wife in the grandest local palace.  Porter and Holmes play music together while Porter's wife puts on grand balls and other entertainments that draw the wealthy and powerful socialites of the city.

Mary investigates as only she can, eventually locating her quarry, though she can't make contact with them until it is almost too late.  Lord Selwick has also come to Venice seeking his sister.  He takes up with the fascists, wearing their fearsome grim black uniforms.  The fascists are courting him, hoping to gain his substantial influence in Parliament for their cause.  

The many pages and many days of investigation leading to this climax led me to the threshold of boredom.  There is only so much of the history and geography and society of 1920's Venice I can stand in one sitting, to mix my metaphors.  I also pity non-Italian speakers like me who are inundated with Italian words and phrases at every turn.  Luckily, I was reading on a Kindle, where I could long-press on a word or phrase to get a translation and Wikipedia explanation, if appropriate.  Who knew there were so many Italian-named kinds of boats in use in Venice?  Gondolas are only one of many ways to get around there. 

I was bogged down at this stage such that a chapter or two a day was enough, as I waited and hoped for a breakthrough to speed up the story.  I also grew weary of the constant presence of gay and lesbian characters and activities, which, in all fairness, are essential to the story.

The breakthrough comes finally, and I could not put the book down as the final resolution built up through the final chapters.  I will not spoil anything by revealing the nature of the resolution, but it's eminently satisfying.  It's clever, it's a bit funny, and it metes out well-deserved justice on the miscreants we have had to put up with throughout the book.  I loved it.

It makes me wonder if Ms. King thought up the image in the final scene and worked backward from there to create the story that would give the scene its maximum impact.  If so, hurray for her!

So, if you know Mary Russell and her famous husband, you will undoubtedly like this book.  If not, get to know them in the earlier books, then gird up your loins, get an Italian to English dictionary (or a Kindle), and dig into this book.  You will be happy you did.