By Laurie R. King
New York: Bantam Books, 2011
There is a crucial reason why Arthur Conan Doyle tells most of the Sherlock Holmes stories through the eyes of the detective’s less brilliant companion, Dr. Watson. Doyle needs a character who can reveal Holmes’s deductions, while at the same time being astounded by them. This is something that neither Holmes himself nor an omniscient moderator could do.
The lack of a Watson is what dooms Laurie R. King’s Pirate King, the G&S-themed eleventh book in a series featuring Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell. She’s a kind of “junior Holmes,” possessing many of his remarkable abilities, but to a lesser degree. She is also a crashing bore, as she has none of the eccentricities that make Holmes the riveting character he is.
She is also the narrator, and her humility leaves her unable to astonish the reader with her deductions, the way Holmes always astonished Watson. Her limitations are apparent when Holmes enters the story, but he is present for only about a quarter of the novel. The rest of the book feels like marking time for his arrival.
The story takes place after World War I, when Holmes is about three times Russell’s age. In their scenes together, their relationship seems sterile and passionless: more like a business arrangement. Watson and Holmes showed more genuine affection for one another than this pair. I assume the earlier books made a more credible case for their marriage, but I am left with no burning desire to read them.
The story concerns Fflyte Films, which is making a silent film about a company that is producing a version of The Pirates of Penzance. The director, Randolph Fflyte, has such a passion for realism that he insists on filming on location in Spain and Morocco, and hiring locals with no acting experience as pirates. Scotland Yard believes that someone in Fflyte’s orbit is involved in smuggling.
As the Yard has no jurisdiction in Spain, our old friend, the ageless Inspector Lestrade (with Mycroft Holmes as a behind-the-scenes puppet-master), arranges for Russell to offer herself as traveling secretary to the film’s producer, Geoffrey Hale, so that she can find out if anything nefarious is going on. Naturally, there is, although it takes hundreds of pages before the author finally gets around to it. For a long while, it feels more like a soap opera than a detective novel.
While we wait for anything resembling a real mystery, Russell immerses herself in the film production, surrounded by the film crew and the cardboard cut-out actors and actresses who are to play the roles in Pirates, if ever the troubled film can ever get underway. (Oddly enough, they all know the words and music of the opera by heart, even though they would never have the chance to use them in a silent film.) For much of the book, Russell’s main role is as chaperone for the girls playing General Stanley’s daughters, and she is quite the kill-joy.
Obviously, the book is full of G&S references, most of which are accurate (the libretto is misquoted once or twice), but like Sir Despard’s penny readings, they are not remarkably entertaining. The book is tedious, the narrative dull, the story plodding and preposterous. Of course, many of the original Holmes stories likewise defied rational belief. It was Holmes himself who brought them to life. Mary Russell is as dull as a dishrag.