Thursday, October 6, 2016

Justice Hall by Laurie R. King (A Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mystery)

As much as possible, I try to offer fairly objective reviews for this blog.

True, a review is by definition subjective, but what I mean is that I make a conscious effort to focus on a book's writing and narrative style, how well the author folds research into the story (or how well-researched a novel is), setting, the development of characters over time, etc. The more “technical” aspects, I suppose.

It also means I try to keep knee-jerk opinions to a minimum and examine why I like or dislike something. I’m well aware that (especially when it comes to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or Robert Louis Stevenson or a few other of my sacred cow authors) I can be a harsh, unforgiving, nitpicky, stick-in-the-mud puritanical pedant. 

Hard to believe, I know, but I do in fact try to reign that in.

That said, sometimes I’m just going to enjoy a book precisely because of certain settings, plot elements, time periods or other literary elements. Much to my surprise, Justice Hall is one of those of books.

As I’ve explained in another post, The Moor nearly made me give up this series altogether. O Jerusalem, however, played right into my lifelong love of MiddleEastern culture. [1] So to say King is becoming a bit of a hit-or-miss author for me is an understatement.

Enter Justice Hall, a book that combines two of my favorite Middle Eastern characters from the series with my all-time favorite mystery setting, a grand English manor. Upon first glance, it's not exactly a setting portmanteau I'd think would work, but King manages to make the two diametrically opposed worlds and the tension between them play together wonderfully. It’s a neat trick, and I can’t help but mentally tip my hat to author Laurie R. King for pulling it off.

The plot has all the elements needed to make it a fun, albeit a tad predictable, read for the mystery lover. Secret passages, a traditional English hunt, a huge, grand gala, a war-torn love story, family secrets. Like a traditional dish of comfort food untouched by the gluten free movement that uses real butter, King has crafted a shamelessly indulgent (and satisfying) piece of genre fiction.

There is a panoply of interesting, diverse characters, a well-plotted, complex mystery and several other artfully constructed settings besides Justice Hall as well. I found some of family genealogy aspects yawn-inducing but I know plenty of people simply love that kind of thing. And, in all fairness, it is the focal point upon which the plot turns.

Another compelling element of this installment is how King handles the time period. The struggle of an upper-class society attempting to find its footing in the turbulent wake of social changes brought by World War I is not a focal point of the book but is adequately explored through telling details such as the preparations for a huge party and the more casual dress and demeanor of houseguests. (I tried not to think this installment was not a mercenary attempt by King to capitalize on the Downton Abbey craze).

One aspect of this installment, one that I can’t help but wonder if it contributed to my deep enjoyment of this book, is that Sherlock himself is largely absent for a large part of it.

I have commented before on how unnecessary and pointless I find Mary and Sherlock’s marriage to be. In addition to being fairly far-fetched (and I say this as a woman whose husband is 10 years older than her), it is poorly handled and simply doesn’t do anything to further any of the stories or the characters.

Improbably in this installment, for example, Mary has to be reminded at one point that Sherlock, not being as young as he used to be, may take longer to recover from injuries. Again, as woman with an older husband (I am 34, my husband is 45), believe me – you can’t be in an intimate marital relationship and not pick up on something like that, let alone forget it. I don’t care how fit or healthy Sherlock is; a 20-year-old young man is simply not that easily confused with a man in his forties.

In addition, the relationship is extraordinarily cold and passionless anyway, which means when it does come up it gets in the way.

Russell and Holmes’ relationship feels like an intimate friendship between a girl and a mentor; why not just let it be that? I’m not looking for a romance novel and don’t need any bodice ripping, but for a young woman who is so willing to dive into life-threatening adventures the notion that she is essentially asexual is discordant.

We expect that from Holmes, of course, but for me Mary’s haughty, cold-fish nature only exacerbates the grating Mary Sue aspect of her character (speaking of the Mary Sue tendency, she has an absolutely eye-roll inducing part to play in an otherwise excellently done traditional English hunt).

At this point, I wish Mary would discover she’s a lesbian and fall passionately in love with a woman, or even another, younger man, or at least admit her marriage with Holmes is merely one of convenience so they can stay in the same hotel room or whatever when need be. It is the only thing that demotes these books from a fairly well-done pastiche to borderline adolescent wish fulfillment fan fiction. 

[1] My obsession and love of the Middle East began after reading a special edition of National Geographic from my grandfather. (Oh how I loved his bi-yearly deliveries of that heavy stack of glossy, wonder-filled pages!) 

Specifically, a special edition on the disappearing traditions of the Middle East. I think I was in third or fourth grade, possibly younger. There was one particular photo of a lone, robed Pashtun chief, robes billowing, walking away from the camera amidst gaping-mouthed modern tourists on a paved road that I will never forget. But it was the sidebars that got me – the folklore, the beautiful script I couldn’t read, the explosive colored mountains of spices, intriguing stories of women with "faces like the moon" and treasure that was likely to be coffee or spices as jewels...I was determined to travel the Middle East as a nomadic adventurer when I grew up. 

Obviously, that is a dream deferred for a litany of reasons, but with every report of ISIS destroying Syrian artifacts or other Middle Eastern treasures, my heart simply breaks. 

No comments:

Post a Comment