Yes, I'll admit it. I'm addicted. You're going to get tired of hearing me talk about Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series long before I get tired of reading them. It's hard to resist the allure of intelligent, complex characters in what promises to be an entertaining mystery. So while I do try to read other things, every so often I have to indulge and pick up the next few installments.
Recently I read King's The Moor. Honestly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed her other Mary Russell stories. The moor itself played such a strong role in the story that it really deserved to be the title character. But once the intrigue of this mysterious geographic phenomenon wore off, it just left a depressing air over the whole story. The mystery wasn't very engaging either, despite early suggestions that seemed promising. Unlike her other novels that have little or no relation to Conan Doyle's work, The Moor visits the site of one of Sherlock Holmes' original adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Russell and Holmes are initially there to help a friend who has been disturbed recently with accounts that the infamous Hound has returned. Their interest deepens when a man is found murdered on this same friend's property. Eventually they discover who is responsible, and uncover a much larger deception in the process. But I had to trudge through so much grimness in Russell's time on the moor itself that I was kind of relieved when it was over!
O Jerusalem was the next Russell novel King published, despite the story actually chronologically falling somewhere towards the end of the first Russell novel, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Toward the end of that story, Russell and Holmes flee to Palestine for a few months to escape an unknown enemy in England who wants both of them dead. Their experiences there are only briefly touched on as they don't hold any real importance to that particular story. But those few months serve as the meat for the novel, O Jerusalem. In disguise, they join up with two dangerous Arabs -- Mahmoud and Ali -- and spend the next few months living a nomadic life as they try to uncover a terrorist plot aimed at starting another war.
As boring as I found The Moor, I found O Jerusalem, on the other hand, incredibly fascinating. King does such a good job bringing her settings to life that I felt like I should be scratching the lice in my own hair. The setting, the culture, the people, the history; it was full of such flavor that I was completely engulfed in the story. Amidst the very rough lifestyle, there are moments of humor and lightness. For instance, after suffering as a filthy nomad, and being treated with scorn and mistrust for being a woman, Russell has the opportunity to bathe and attend a dinner party where she shines as the center of all the young officers' attention, much to Holmes' irritation. There were some delightful moments like that, and even the more painful and uncomfortable ones (of which the novel was mostly full) were still so interesting that I simply devoured it.
So naturally, I was very interested when I started reading her next novel, Justice Hall, and found that it dealt with the same characters from O Jerusalem. Mahmoud and Ali, it turns out, aren't native Arabs. (Holmes indicates that briefly in O Jerusalem, but it never becomes significant to that particular story.) They are actually English noblemen who entered the service of the king decades earlier as spies in that troubled part of the world. This story picks up almost immediately after The Moor left off, when Mary Russell is surprised to find a very different -- and more civilized -- Ali on their doorstep asking for help. It turns out that Mahmoud -- now called Marsh -- has unexpectedly inherited his family's fortune, title, estate, etc, and has reluctantly left his Arabic life behind to do his duty. Russell and Holmes are shocked to find their friend so changed -- and unhappily so -- and set about doing their part to uncover the mystery surrounding a supposed heir who would challenge Marsh's position, all while wrestling with the fact that doing what is best for Marsh-the-heir may be the worst possible thing for Mahmoud-the-man. Even more intriguing, though, is the mystery surrounding the scandalous wartime execution of the original heir, Marsh's nephew Gabriel Hughenfort. As they dig further into the past, they uncover deep family secrets dealing with the horrors of war, and the courageous and tragic end of a good and honest young man.
I felt so much compassion for the characters, even Gabriel who had already died long before this story takes place. It was a hard, yet empathetic look at life for a soldier during WWI, full of humanity tinged with horror. It was also an interesting twist to see the metamorphosis of Mahmoud and Ali into Marsh and Alistair. And there were enough plot twists and action to keep things moving toward a very satisfying conclusion. One of the best stories in the series that I've read yet, which just makes me itch to get my hands on the next one!