Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Moor by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes)

The fourth installment of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series proved to be a surprising disappointment, despite Holmes and Russell’s return to Dartmoor, scene of the very infamous crime that took place in front of  Baskerville Hall which was well-chronicled by, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

We begin with Russell firmly ensconced at Oxford and working on her theological studies while Holmes is, ostensibly, away on a case. A telegram arrives from Holmes summoning her to the moor. She, of course, folds it and returns to her studies—only to be interrupted a few moments later by another telegram asking her to leave again.

Of course, she goes, and finds herself the guest of the Reverend Sabin Baring-Gould, a rector who lives in a rambling pseudo-Elizabethan monstrosity and fancies himself the squire of Dartmoor and its residents. He has asked Holmes to look into sightings of ghostly carriage, followed by a huge dog with a glowing eye, and the murder of a moor resident.

So, Russell and Holmes spend much of the book tramping around the unwelcoming, foggy, cold, wet and harsh moor, attempting to interview its residents about the victim and the sightings. Alternately, Russell reads some of the many volumes produced by the aging and infirm squire, who has a very close—but inexplicable to Russell—relationship with Holmes.

King does deliver in her writing—the reader truly feels as though they, too, are lost in the pea-soup fog or trudging in bracken and liable to step in a bog and sink at any moment. When respite is offered in the form of stops to local pubs or in front of the fire in Baring-Gould’s study, the comfort and relief is equally felt.

But the plot was not really all that complex nor the mystery all that difficult or interesting. The characters are mildly intriguing, but with the exception of the “witch of Mary Tavy,” I found them all very lacking compared to who King has given us in the previous books in the series. And when drawn parallel to young Henry Baskerville and Stapleton, they seem down right cardboard.

All this would be alright, but there simply isn’t enough character development (virtually none, really; Holmes and Russell’s marriage remains distant and still feels sterile, despite tasteful hints of conjugal relations) to drive the novel on that alone. Even the big reveal of why Holmes has such high regard for the reverend isn’t all that earth-shattering, and I thought Russell’s level of shock upon discovering it was out of character for her.

Admittedly, some of this may be the fact that I simply am not that interested in the real-life Rev. Baring-Gould, who (as in the novel) did care deeply about the moor, was a prolific writer and did, in fact, collect the songs and folklore of the area. King said she was drawn to center a novel around him because one of his grandson wrote the “definitive biography” of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective, by William S. Baring-Gould) using Baring-Gould’s life as a model for Sherlock’s. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the biography; I'm content knowing about Dr. Bell and Doyle's internship under him). 

And Baring-Gould the elder’s life does seem like it was interesting: apparently his parents travelled widely, taking their son with them and essentially using the world for his education. But, for whatever reason, this premise simply wasn’t enough for me to be fully engaged in the book. Yes, Baring-Gould is well-written, and yes, the real-life man was clearly passionate about the moor, but I simply couldn’t connect. The excerpts from his books that head off each chapter began to grow tedious for me.

All in all, the novel wasn’t unreadable or terrible. And as fans of character mystery series know, each new installment is always a bit fraught, especially when the standard has been set as high as King has set hers. I certainly enjoyed what I learned about the moor and certain scenes of the book did linger. But for all of that, I just can’t help but think that perhaps King set her sights a bit too high in deciding to use The Hound of the Baskervilles for her first selection of the canon into which to weave her characters. 

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