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Saturday, July 26, 2014

‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #2 by Laurie R. King

From the BLURB:

It is 1921 and Mary Russell - Sherlock Holmes's brilliant apprentice, now an Oxford graduate with a degree in theology - is on the verge of acquiring a sizable inheritance. Independent at last, with a passion for divinity and detective work, her most baffling mystery may now involve Holmes and the burgeoning of a deeper affection between herself and the retired detective.

Russell's attentions turn to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe, a charismatic suffragette and a mystic, whose draw on the young theology scholar is irresistible. But when four bluestockings from the Temple turn up dead shortly after changing their wills, could sins of a capital nature be afoot? Holmes and Russell investigate, as their partnership takes a surprising turn...

Laurie R. King, ‘editor’ of the Mary Russell memoirs (which she received, curiously and mysteriously, via a trunk of unknown origins) has seen the first of Mary’s manuscripts published. After the publication of ‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice’, King received what she believes to be correspondence from Ms. Russell in the form of a postcard. Investigations into the mysterious author of these memoirs is still ongoing, and King puts a call out for any help in locating her whereabouts.

Meanwhile, in this – the second memoir of Mary Russell’s – ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ was first published in 1995, the second book in ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series.

It’s 1921 and Mary Russell is turning 21 and coming into her inheritance – the considerable business holdings of her late father and real estate of her late mother’s will now officially, legally be Mary’s and out of her dreadful guardian Aunt’s hands. At the same time as she is becoming independently wealthy, and graduating from Oxford with honours in theology and chemistry, Mary’s relationship with the ten-years retired detective Sherlock Holmes is becoming increasingly confusing. That she is his apprentice and he her mentor is never under any doubt – but Mary wonders if she is leaning towards a more amorous relationship with Holmes.

During this confusing time Mary bumps into an old Oxford friend, Veronica Beaconsfield who reaches out to Mary for help. Her ex-fiancé, one Miles Fitzwarren has come home from the Great War a broken, shell-shocked young man with a drug addiction to heroin that Veronica ‘Ronnie’ hopes Mary can have some suggestions for remedy and recuperation.

Ronnie also introduces Mary to her latest ‘do good’ work, for the New Temple of God and its charismatic leader, Margery Childe. In the wake of WWI and the nation’s “surplus women” who find their usefulness during the war effort no longer required, Childe is campaigning for a different suffragette, starting with the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women. The Temple also does considerable good working in providing education services to women, and providing shelters for battered women and children.

Margery Childe is quite a force, verging on a cult leader for all her charisma. But something doesn’t quite sit right with Mary, and when female members of the Temple start dying, she takes up her own investigation independent of Holmes…

This is the second ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ book, and while it doesn’t have quite the same panache and punch as the first (which is also considerably longer than this second instalment) Laurie R. King did manage to have me on the edge of my seat by the end of the book – anticipating both the action, and emotional pay-off that Russell and Holmes go through.
 I had met Sherlock Holmes at a time when adolescence and the devastating circumstances of my orphaning had left me with an exterior toughness and an interior that was malleable to the personality of anyone willing to listen to me and take me seriously. Had Holmes been a cat burglar or forger, no doubt I should have come into adulthood learning to walk parapets at night or concocting arcane inks.

It is worth noting that in this book, Russell finds herself on her own for the majority of the plot. She and Holmes are at an awkward and critical junction in their relationship – there’s a spark between them, that runs far deeper than mentor-apprentice, but neither seem willing to budge and risk their valuable friendship for what could be disastrous intimacy. So Holmes is out of the picture for the majority of this book, and it’s perhaps not quite as enthralling for his lack…

But King makes up for it with her witty, dry prose and a whodunit that’s frightening and captivating. I particularly liked her wry sense of humour of Russell’s description of the leader Margery Childe:

She was a feminist and she had a sense of humour, an appealing combination that was regrettably rare … 
This being set in 1921, there’s also a running-gag about Holmes’s biographer (Arthur Conan-Doyle) embarrassing himself (and Holmes, by extension) with an article he wrote around the Cottingley Fairies affair. This is hilarious, and just one example of how King so beautifully blends myth, history and reality so seamlessly into this story of a fictional character’s real-life counterpart living out a fictitious continued existence beyond his retirement/finale.

I also really liked this book for the emotional pay-off. Mary Russell goes through a lot over the course of this investigation, and by book’s end I could definitely mark out a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in her character. That’s also true of her relationship with Holmes:
 For me, for always, the paramount organ of passion was the mind. Unnatural, unbalanced, perhaps, but it was true: Without intellect, there could be no love.

This was a great book for marrying high-stakes action with the emotional build-up of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes as more than just partner detectives. I am now more invested than ever in this fabulous series, and I can’t wait to see where Russell and Holmes venture next!


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