Laurie R. King is a writer of mysteries who has done something truly audacious — taken a renowned fictional character and inserted him into her own books. He is Sherlock Holmes, a man who has explored mysteries in a number of imaginative situations under King’s pen. He got there by becoming first mentor and then husband of Mary Russell, who appears in 12 previous King novels. She and Holmes have been married for four years as this novel begins.
Russell, as she is called, has been lured to Morocco in the 1920’s by the prospect of a part in an English movie. Holmes, interested in seeing Morocco but bored by the process of movie-making, hooks up with a distant relative (Hubert Lyautey, an actual person) who, although British, was Resident General of French-controlled Morocco.
As the book opens, Russell awakens in a strange room with a grievous head wound and cuts and bruises over her whole body. She can’t remember who she is and has no idea of where she is. It’s fascinating to read about how she escapes and wanders through the city of Fez seeking food, water and some clue to her identity. This is no timid woman. Russell wears her blonde hair short, conceals her gender by wearing a mannish robe and is handy with knife or gun as needed.
Holmes was scheduled to meet up with her when the movie was finished, but she doesn’t show up. He has little to go on, except that Russell was seen walking away from the movie set holding a young child by the hand. This native child, who is mute, attaches himself to Russell and helps her as only a wily street urchin can.
Soon Russell and Holmes are into exploits as thrilling as an Indiana Jones movie.
How and why Russell was adducted and beaten is part of a complicated plot involving the different factions trying to gain control of Morocco (Spain, France and Rif rebels). For the most part, the story unfolds from her point of view, but occasionally we hear it from Holmes’ side. It is fun to see his reactions and deducing skills show up as he searches for his wife. At one point, he looks in a mirror and decides not to shave, in case a beard might come in handy later. (It does.)
A situation toward the end of the book has Russell and an ally alone in an abandoned underground prison without prospect of food or water. When it comes to thinking her way out of a seemingly impossible situation, Russell sets her intelligence to work in amazing but logical ways. Using the basic laws of physics, she labors to create a small spark of light in complete darkness that eventually gets her and her companion out of this living hell.
King’s prose is a pleasure to read and has won her a number of mystery awards. Some compare her to P.D. James. At times, however, there is so much historic detail about the political factions struggling for control of Morocco that it slows down the narrative. Foreign words are used frequently, and a small glossary at the end includes only a handful of them. Even so, this action mystery is an original, fast-paced read.