I recently spent a couple of weeks out of town, and had a whole stack of library books to choose from to keep me company while traveling. Some I'd picked up out of idle curiosity; some I checked out because I felt like I should read them, not because I really wanted to; and a few I was genuinely excited about. Guess which ones actually got read while I was away. What can I say? I was on vacation!
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and was hooked on the delightful young and brilliant Mary Russell who is befriended and tutored by an aging Sherlock Holmes. So I was happy to pick up the next in King's prolific series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. Once again, Mary Russell takes center stage with Holmes as an important, though secondary, character. The politics of the post-WWI era come into play when Russell gets involved with a group that is part religion and part suffrage movement, led by a charismatic woman named Margery Childe. As danger stalks Childe's inner circle of followers -- and Russell herself -- she puts herself at great personal risk to uncover the truth of the evil forces behind it all.
At the same time, Russell faces personal conflict in her relationship with Holmes. As she has grown into adulthood her feelings of respect and admiration for him have blossomed into affection, but it's an affection that he shuns. He is permanently entrenched in bachelorhood and wants nothing to do with affairs of the heart. Russell herself is as much guided by intellect as emotion in her choice, since the two of them make a most logical match, but she feels deeply enough to be hurt by his rejection. The tension it creates in their relationship becomes one of the most engaging parts of the plot, even though it's a minor subplot to the main action.
A Letter of Mary comes next in the series. This time the mystery involves an old archeologist friend who is killed shortly after giving Russell a perplexing and tantalizing artifact -- a letter that purports to have been written by Mary Magdalene during the destruction of Jerusalem. Russell's passionate interest in theology and strong feminist ideals are immediately piqued. But it's her sharp powers of deduction and skill at intrigue and disguise -- accompanied by the indispensable Holmes, of course -- that helps to solve the mystery of her friend's murder.
As mysteries, both novels were interesting but not riveting. If there was nothing else to them than the mystery, they would have fallen disappointingly flat. (Which makes me wonder about King's other non-Mary Russell novels, since I think that mystery is the only genre she writes in.) As period pieces, they were more intriguing due to King's convincing recreation of 1920's London with the politics and social issues of the time. But the most engaging parts of the story surround the multi-layered character of Mary Russell. Her strengths, her failings, and her human complexities are so well-portrayed that she feels like she could walk right off the page. Throw in her fascinating relationship with Sherlock Holmes, and I think I could read about her forever. And at the rate King is writing these novels, maybe I will!