Review – Garment of Shadows (Laurie R. King)

I started reading Laurie R. King’s Garment of Shadows the day it came out, and I think I should begin by saying that it has absolutely killed me, not having time to finish it until now. Cliffhanger chapters are one thing when you know you can pick the book up again in an hour or so. Waiting days between readings is torture.

I truly have nothing but praise for this installment of the Mary Russell series. The last several books have gotten very dark, and the last, Pirate King, felt like an overreaction to that, trying to slingshot the series back into whimsy. Not that there’s anything wrong with whimsy, but it was a bit jarring to go from crazy cultists, unexpected relatives, family drama, death, and madness to… “So, they’re pirates. Only, they’re not real pirates, but they are real pirates, and they’re playing pirates, but they’re playing pretend pirates that are captured by pirates. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes.” That is to say, too much too fast.

Garment of Shadows made up for that. It was fun (in an intense, terrifying way), exciting, not too bleak (except in all the right places), and not the least bit silly.

So, to recap: Russell wakes up somewhere in Morocco with soldiers on her tail, a bandage on her head, and no memories at all. The country is teetering on the brink of outright chaos. Old friends return unexpectedly, accompanied by political intrigue and a mute child, and the fates of nations hang on knowledge buried somewhere in Russell’s battered brain.

Pretty standard fare for King.

Now, I will admit that I cringed when I read the synopsis and was whacked in the face with the word “amnesia.” Being a frequenter of several fanfiction sites and familiar with just about every possible amnesia plot bunny, I did momentarily wonder whether it was a joke.

But, diehard fan that I am, I was still at Barnes & Noble the moment they opened on 4 September. It is very difficult to find someone to ring up your purchase at nine in the morning. But moving on…

The amnesia works. Most of the Mary Russell books work tolerably well as stand-alone pieces, though my OCD makes it difficult for me to read anything in anything but chronological order. Garment of Shadows, though, is at least partly the story of Russell getting to know herself, which makes it a much more accessible volume than, say, Justice Hall, which is so much better if you already know the characters. I do know the characters, but it’s been a while since I finished Pirate King, and it was very good to have a sort of reintroduction to Russell. The character is so deep and complex that the reader tends to forget things about her, and it was nice to be reminded just why I like her so much in the first place.

On the subject of characters, I have to address Holmes. I think the controversial Holmes is the reason so many Holmesians are put off by the series, but in my opinion, those are the ones who never really understood Holmes to begin with. King’s Holmes is certainly not Doyle’s Holmes; he is older and wiser, more cautious, and we get to see him not from the perspective of an intellectual inferior, but of an intellectual equal. (See The Detective’s Perspective.) More than that, though, we get to see the inner Holmes a lot more, with some segments of the book coming (ostensibly) from an omniscient third-person narrator. That Holmes is someone who is occasionally plagued by “emotional grit” in his thinking machine. And this is so very, very true to the Great Detective of Victorian London. He never was cold or apathetic. Holmes has always loved humanity. He could have exercised his genius in nearly any field, but he chose one that would benefit mankind. Forgive the nerdy reference but, like a Vulcan, Holmes is not devoid of emotion, merely capable of exercising immense control over himself. King captures that brilliantly. Her Holmes knows how to love and how to make sacrifices for the people he has taken it upon himself to protect.

No spoilers, though.

We get some wonderful Russell-not-standing-for-Holmes’-crap moments and some lovely Holmes-not-standing-for-Russell’s-crap moments, and it’s all just spectacular.

That brings me to the setting. I’ve never been to Morocco, but I almost feel now as though I had. There is a remarkable truth and sensitivity in King’s descriptions, providing a depth to the setting that almost makes it into its own character. I can almost smell the mint tea. I really have no way of knowing how accurate any of it is, but truth is something separate, and it certainly is true.

I cannot wait to lose myself in Russell’s world again next time.

The Detective’s Perspective

Because – let’s face it – detectives tend to be rather peculiar people. Sherlock Holmes is an aspie cocaine addict who shoots holes in the walls. Hercule Poirot is obsessive-compulsive and fashion-forward, and he solves mysteries by tidying things. Jane Marple is a nosy old lady who sometimes displays an almost creepy glee at the prospect of a murder. Sam Spade… Well, he just isn’t a very nice person. Moving forward, you have people like Adrian Monk and Shawn Spencer – an omniphobic genius and an ADHD nerd who disguises astuteness with a veneer of incompetence. And claims to be psychic.

Detectives are weird. On the whole, they seem to be a lot weirder than other fictional characters, perhaps barring those of science fiction and fantasy (though there is an entire subcategory of ordinary-person-thrust-into-strange-circumstances characters. Harry Potter and all of the Companions of Doctor Who come to mind).

Part of this undoubtedly comes from the trend in fiction that all strengths must be balanced by weakness (something like constructing an RPG character, I suppose) and that the weakness should be in somewhat the same category as the strength. Intelligence being a mental trait, therefore, personality flaws seem to be the accepted form of corresponding weakness. And sometimes those flaws verge on the territory of straight-up crazy.

The fun thing is that a detective need not be a reliable narrator, and that is something I can play with.

I’m going to talk about Mary Russell, now. In fact, I’ll probably talk about Mary Russell quite often, seeing as her memoirs (published under the name of her literary agent, Laurie R. King, and beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) are my favourite post-Canon account of Sherlock Holmes. I grew up on those books, and they were one of the few works I read as a child that suggested that a girl could, with a little bit of work, be intelligent and powerful and attractive. (When I started on BEEK, Hermione was still frizzy and buck-toothed and never described in especially flattering terms; the various princesses I liked were either smart, shrewish, and pointy or vapid and in constant need of rescuing; and assorted other heroines had a bad habit of saving the day just by being pure of heart. I probably had appalling taste in literature at that point, but my taste might have improved sooner if there had been any really good literature available for little girls.)

The short version is that Mary Russell, age fifteen, foetal theologian and Virgil-addict, trips over Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs, bothers him into feeding her tea, and proceeds to become, as the title suggests, his apprentice. Adventures ensue.

At age ten, I was already a rabid Holmesian who knew the Detective well enough to be suspicious of any female claiming to be his apprentice. After all, to Sherlock Holmes, there was only one woman. However, at age ten, I was also a scholastic Catholic with an interest in folklore (which ties in closely to theology, in many ways), a rudimentary background in Latin, an unhealthy obsession with cryptography, two long blonde braids, and an overwhelming desire to trip over Sherlock Holmes in any locale, period. I gave it a shot.

Thus was I introduced to extra-Canonical Holmesian literature.

Pastiche, though, is a topic for a later post. Right now, I am dealing with perspective. Once I had gotten past my incredulity and really settled down to fall in love with Mary Russell, I began to realize that I was reading something vastly different from Watson’s writings. Part of that is due to the fact that Russell is a thinker on par with Holmes himself, which eliminates the element of awe involved with the solving of a case. Her style is frank and matter-of-fact, neither exaggerating the suspense of danger nor diminishing it. She understands what is happening and deals with it.

The other part, though, is that a person writing about herself is likely to miss a few things. For example, it took me a few read-throughs to realize that when certain other players are depicted as being dumb as broccoli, they are probably about as smart as I. Oh, the arrogance!

That’s alright, though; the whole point of Sherlock Holmes (and by extension, anyone as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes) is that he is infinitely beyond us mere mortals. We do get a glimpse of his perspective in LION and BLAN, but for the most part, we have to rely on Watson, whose adulatory accounts breathe hero-worship, at least until he gets fed up with Holmes’ quirks and foibles and switches to a blunter reporting style. Honestly, as much as I love Holmes, I think I might have eventually gotten fed up with him, too.

Russell is different. She gets fed up with Holmes with some regularity, but I don’t get fed up with her, because she’s just so relatable. Yes, she’s arrogant, often whiny and snappish, a definite know-it-all, obsessive, sometimes pedantic… But she doesn’t see herself that way. She’s smarter than everyone around her, and she knows it; and while living with her would probably become intolerable very quickly, living inside her head is sort of pleasant. It’s nice to be smarter than everyone else, just for a little while. It’s very, very nice to solve a case vicariously, following along with the detective’s thoughts instead of sitting back with a glass of sherry to listen to the Big Reveal on the last page. It’s not a story about a fairly average or slightly above-average person watching an extraordinary person be extraordinary; it’s a story about an extraordinary person and her extraordinary friend struggling to exist in a sea of mundane mediocrity – with a few criminal exceptions. It’s almost a relief when a really daunting nemesis surfaces, because it actually hurts to watch an amazing female protagonist stagnating.

(And to be honest, I’m sometimes an arrogant, whiny, snappish, know-it-all, obsessive pedant as well. In my case it is likely less deserved, but it has driven me to keep up with the series.)

Mind, I use Mary Russell as an example because I am familiar with her. Flotsam, of Martin Davies’ Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, is quite something else as well, and breaks quite a few of the traditional conventions of the cosy mystery. Flottie could easily have ended up as an Irregular, had she been born male. She is bright, but not quite bright enough to require a counterbalancing personality flaw, and thus comes off as more adorable than compelling. Additionally, though her perception of Holmes as rather thick is understandable in light of her affection for Mrs. Hudson, the constant emphasis on that perception was at times enough to raise my Holmesian hackles. Of course, Flottie is a Watson (and so I feel justified in dismissing her, even though she is probably smarter than I… Wait, no, hang on…)

How does any of this relate to anything, beyond detailed rambling?

First of all, go pick up a copy of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, because I like it, and because you’ll miss a lot of my references if you don’t.

Secondly, my own project focuses on a brilliant, powerful, often snarky woman. Though mine has its origins in a game I played with my grandmother years before my first exposure to Russell, I freely admit that, having grown up on a steady diet of Russ and Holmes, my style and characterisation probably draw a lot from their combined influence. In fact, I suspect that, without Russ, this particular project would probably have proceeded along the lines of a comedy. Thankfully, I no longer see the idea of an intelligent woman as particularly humorous.

Written from the detective’s perspective, the weirdness is subsumed by the narrative. It’s not gone, of course, merely hidden just beneath the surface to be enjoyed by really serious readers and ignored by the rest. Subtle, like a dash of thyme instead of a cup of cayenne.

Besides, psychoses are fun.