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ex libris reviews

1 April 2002

Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it's the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it's just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let's just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full-of-life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant business as a dead dog on a termite mound.
Terry Pratchett


In This Issue:
Changes Are In Sight

Except for one weekend where I had a nasty cold, March was a pretty good month. I read some good books, watched some fun movies, and got quite a lot of work done on the programs I use to maintain Ex Libris Reviews (and the rest of the website, too). You won't notice too many changes this month, but over the next few months things will begin to look somewhat different. The site should look better, and it should also be easier to find your way about. Wish me luck.

Until then, here are some reviews: a little Terry Pratchett, some Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett, a lot of P.G. Wodehouse and Lawrence Block, and perhaps a few others. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Thirteen Gun Salute
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the thirteenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

This book, one of the best in the series, is several things at once. On the surface, it's a tale of a diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Pulo Prabang in Malaysia. The French have sent a mission there to offer the Sultan guns and shipbuilders in exchange for aid in crippling England's East Indian trade. Jack Aubrey is ordered to convey England's envoy to Pulo Prabang with a counter offer. Stephen Maturin accompanies him, nominally as a guest in his capacity as a naturalist, but really as the representative of Naval Intelligence. What follows is a game of bribery, deceit, disinformation, and ruthless court politics as Maturin and his French counterparts work behind the scenes to influence the Sultan's decision.

At the same time, the book is also the culmination of a long tale of treachery that began in Treason's Harbor, where we discovered that two prominent members of the British government were selling secrets to the French. Their treachery was revealed in The Reverse of the Medal, and they fled to France. They appear in this book as companions of the French envoy, Maturin's counterparts. The scene in which they are amply repaid for their treachery is at once grisly, understated, and chilling.

And finally, The Thirteen Gun Salute is a portrait of Fox, the King's envoy to Pulo Prabang. Fox is a man of parts, as they used to say, intelligent, well-read, skilled at chess, an authority on the spread of Mahayana Buddhism from India into Malaysia and the surrounding area. Raised in Malaysia, he is particularly well-suited to conducting the delicate negotiations with the Sultan.

But Fox is also an ambitious man, hungry for recognition. He does not so much seek to be liked as to be respected; he wishes rather to be impressive than amiable. If he succeeds in Pulo Prabang, he thinks, he will at last be appreciated as he deserves. A knighthood would not be at all out of the question.

The mission succeeds, of course; and it is Fox's odious handling of his success that colors the climax of the book.

Next month: The Nutmeg of Consolation.

Pawn in Frankincense
By Dorothy Dunnett

Over the last few months I've been reading and reviewing books from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This is the fourth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in the Last December's issue.

The previous book, The Disorderly Knights, tells of a game of cat and mouse between Lymond and an enemy whose perfidy isn't revealed until the end of book. This is a problem, because the fellow plays a major, openly villainous role in this book, and yet I can't call him by name because That Would Be Telling. However, he emerges in this book as a new servant of the Turkish Sultan, and so I'll refer to him as the Pasha.

At the end of The Disorderly Knights, the Pasha escapes by revealing that he has control of Lymond's illegitimate son--a son the reader has long been aware of, but whose very existence is news to Lymond. The current book is the tale of Lymond's efforts to recover his son--and of the Pasha's efforts to use the boy to destroy Lymond. As this is the fourth of six books, we know that Lymond wins in the end, but it is a costly victory for Lymond and for those who follow them. The Pasha is a man of fiendish imagination.

The book climaxes with a deadly chess game played with human pieces. Lymond's pieces are his friends and companions; the Pasha's are mostly drawn from the Sultan's guard. But the Pasha has two special pieces, two pawns--two small boys, both with blond hair and blue eyes, both of about two years of age. One is Lymond's son; one is the Pasha's. And thanks to the Pasha's cunning and hatred for Lymond, no one living knows for certain which is which.

One of them will have to be sacrificed. And for a piece to be taken in this game means death.

As always, this is a richly detailed book; Dunnett brings the Mediterranean world and the city of Stamboul to life. I shudder to think how much time she must have spent doing research, and I marvel at how effortlessly and lightly the wealth of historical detail is folded into the story without lecturing or slowing the pace.

But the book is also deeply puzzling. I've presented it as a two-sided struggle, Lymond and his followers against the Pasha and his followers for the safety of Lymond's son; but there's a third player as well, the mysterious Dame de Doubtance. The words the aged fortuneteller deigns to speak invariably prove to be true...but is this from art, or from artifice? Is she psychic, or is she, through her agents, stage-managing events to occur as she pleases? There's considerable evidence to support the latter view. But what is her goal? And what is her connection with Lymond and his family?

I find myself as puzzled by these questions on second reading as I was on the first reading. It's possible that the next books give a satisfactory answer...but if they do I don't remember it.

The Demolished Man
By Alfred Bester

This book is a true classic of science fiction, and a book with the odd characteristic that whenever I read it it's both different and better than I remember.

It concerns a future society in which crime has been virtually eradicated thanks to the presence of a large number of telepaths among the population. To protect the rights non-telepathic brethren, telepaths are subject to strict indoctrination and condition, and must take the Esper Oath, an oath which constrains them to use their powers only in very specific ways. The oath has rarely been broken; the mass of telepaths knows that despite their usefulness, they survive at the sufferance of their non-telepathic cousins. Consequently, oath-breakers are treated harshly--they are ostracized from all further contact with other telepaths.

Crime, and particularly murder, have been mostly wiped out, except for crimes of passion; a non-telepath contemplating serious crimes must necessarily be found out and stopped before they can put their schemes into practice. But telepathic evidence isn't admissible in court, and billionaire Ben Reich uses that information to contrive the perfect murder. It's up to telepath Lincoln Powell, prefect of police, to prove what he's already learned through his powers and bring Reich to justice--and demolition.

The book isn't perfect; it's somewhat dated, and there are some silly bits toward the end. But every science fiction fan should read it at least once.

Equal Rites
By Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's third Discworld novel, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's an awful lot of fun; on the other, Pratchett's view of his world hadn't really solidified yet, and so the contents are somewhat at odds with the later books. Pratchett has an explanation for that, of course; causality on the Discworld isn't all it's cracked up to be, and readers of Thief of Time are well-aware that Time on the Disc doesn't always run smoothly. But more on that topic anon.

This book is a landmark in the series in two ways. First, it marks the first appearance of the indefatigable Granny Weatherwax, though without any of her later companions; second, it marks Pratchett's transition from lampooning the conventions of heroic fantasy to lampooning, well, just about everything else.

As might be guessed from the title, the target this time around is sexism. The book opens with an aging wizard striding purposefully through the Ramtop mountains to the village of Bad Ass, where his arts have told him that a new wizard is about to be born, eighth son of an eighth son. For reasons best known to himself, he wishes to pass bequeath his magical powers to this child. It's a matter of some urgency, for (it is given to wizards to know this) he's scheduled to die immediately after the birth.

He arrives in time, makes his pitch to the impending arrival's father, and, ignoring the midwife's objections, bestows all of his arcane skill and talent upon the baby at its birth, and dies blissfully.

Of course, the baby is a girl, not a boy, which is why the midwife, our own Granny Weatherwax was objecting. On the Disc, women simply don't become wizards; rather, they become witches, like Granny. Wizardry and Witchcraft are two entirely different ways of viewing and manipulating the world, and, so everyone has thought, never the twain shall meet.

Granny looks after young Eskarina during her childhood, and when it becomes clear that girl or no, wizardary will out, accompanies her to Unseen University in the great city of Ankh-Morpork.

There's everything to like in this book, unless you're the one who keeps getting interrupted when your spouse wants to read you funny passages from it, but it does have some flaws. The first is the World-Threatening Climax. This is staple of fantasy literature, which is to say it's a cliche. In his later books Pratchett becomes much better at writing smaller, more human-scale stories.

A more serious problem is the relation between this book and the later ones in the series. Toward the end of the book, Esk and her friend, another wizard named Simon, make some truly amazing discoveries in theoretical magic, discoveries which promise to change the whole craft of wizardry forever. Granny Weatherwax is even offered a teaching position at Unseen University.

And yet, this is the last we ever hear of Esk and Simon and their discoveries. The later tales about Granny Weatherwax never refer to Esk that I can recall. What gives?

I can think of a number of plausible explanations, based on the next couple of books (not least among them, that Pratchett simply found Esk inconvenient) but it's still unsatisfying.

By Terry Pratchett

Fourth in the Discworld series, this is the first in which Death is a major character. You know, Death: the Grim Reaper, who rides a Pale Horse. (The Pale Horse, it so happens, is named "Binky".) Death appears in all of the Discworld books--he's responsible for quite a bit of their charm--but here he takes center stage.

Death is, in his own terms, an Anthromorphic Personification. He isn't human, and he doesn't really understand people. He'd like to, and he's made efforts in that direction, but he can't quite manage it. It's time for another try, and so Death decides to take on an apprentice, a young lad named Mortimer. "Mort", for short.

But Mort's not an Anthromorphic Personification, but a human being. He has feelings. And when Death allows him to carry out the "Duty" on his own, he reacts like any red-blooded young man would do: he harvests the soul of the assassin instead of that of the beautiful princess of Sto Lat. But he wasn't supposed to do that, and the repercussions are cosmic, to say the least.

This book has fewer disconnects with the later books than its predecessor. Ankh-Morpork is still a vague, somewhat misty place, and there's a wild party at the house of the Patrician that I can't imagine Lord Vetinari allowing...but perhaps he wasn't Patrician yet.

Wyrd Sisters
By Terry Pratchett

This is the book in which Pratchett really hit his stride. Granny Weatherwax is back, along with her two colleagues in witchcraft, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, in a wonderful, turned-around, inside-out spoof of MacBeth. It's a tale of thespians, ghosts, jesters, kings, usurpers, and, of course, witches--but in Pratchett's version, the witches are the good guys. As long as you show them respect, of course.

I'm going to say less about this one than the previous two; suffice it to say you should find a copy and read it.

Psmith in the City
By P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse began his literary career writing what the English call school stories: tales of the goings on at what the English call a public school and I would call a boarding school. I've not read any of Wodehouse's school stories; in fact, I've not really read any school stories, period, unless you count the Harry Potter books. One could, really; replace Hogwarts with Eton, quidditch with cricket, and cosmic evil with the rather more mundane variety, and you've more or less got a classic school story.

The transition between Wodehouse's school stories and his later work comes with this book, Psmith in the City, which chronicles the beginning of the adult careers of schoolmates Mike Jackson and his friend Psmith (the "P" is silent, and was inserted by its owner, so far as I can tell, primarily to annoy the conventional). Mike is a classic school-story hero, a cricketer of great promise; Psmith, on the other hand.... How to describe Psmith?

Psmith is always impeccably dressed. Psmith is extremely clever and resourceful. Psmith speaks glibly, articulately, and constantly; and ironically of himself in the third person:

'It is a fearful strain, this commercial toil. Let us trickle towards the post-office. I will leave my hat and gloves as a guarantee of good faith. The cry will go round, "Psmith has gone! Some rival institution has kidnapped him!" Then they will see my hat,' -- he built a foundation of ledgers, planted a long ruler in the middle, and hung his hat on it -- 'my gloves,' -- he stuck two pens into the desk and hung a lavendar glove on each -- 'and they will sink back swooning with relief. They will say, "No, he has not gone permanently. Psmith will return. When the fields are white with daisies he will return." And now, Comrade Jackson, lead me to this picturesque little post office of which I have heard so much.'

It so happens that both Psmith and Mike have become employed as junior clerks at the same institution, the Asiatic Bank in London. In so far as the book has a plot, it concerns their time at the bank, and in particular Psmith's persecution (there is no other word for it) of Mr. Bickersdyke, one of the senior managers.

Despite Psmith's fun with language, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone but a Wodehouse fan. To begin with, there's far too much cricket in it; wholly unexplained cricket, as Wodehouse was writing solely for an English audience who would be familiar with such things. And the tone of the book is odd--at once much more realistic than most of his books, and yet still tied to the schoolroom.

On the other hand, Psmith is undeniably an enjoyable character. His delight in spreading what he ironically calls "sweetness and light" reminds me of the inimitable Uncle Fred, while his dress and mode of speech clearly foreshadow Bertie Wooster.

There are two more books about Psmith, one of which actually brings him to Blandings Castle; no doubt I'll get to them one of these days.

The Mating Season
By P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster is a happy bachelor. He has sufficient funds to support himself as he likes; he dwells in a comfortable London flat, attended by Jeeves, that perfect valet; he enjoys a comfortable game of darts down at the Drones club; he attends nightclubs and shows; he luxuriates in the exquisite meals prepared by Anatole, his Aunt Dahlia's french chef. In fact, there are only three things that weigh upon Bertie's mind (what there is of it): women who think he wants to marry them, friends who want him to do dangerous and deadly things for them, and Aunts. Aunts are by no means the least of the three.

In Wodehouse's world, Aunts are invariably stern, upright, serious-minded, mindful of their class, and bent on preventing their menfolk from enjoying their simple pleasures. Moreover, they are not above threats and blackmail, and so while it is sometimes possible to avoid them, it is never possible to ignore them altogether.

Women who think Bertie wants to marry them are usually worse even than Aunts. Bertie dreads the married state, but the politeness of the Woosters forbids him to disillusion any young woman who regards herself as engaged to him. Almost any steps are worth taking to prevent such an occurrence.

Now, in a previous volume Bertie's friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, a newt fancier and fellow drone, fell madly in love with Madeline Bassett. Fearful of approaching her, he persuaded Bertie to be his go-between. As is usual in these cases, Madeline misunderstood the gist of Bertie's presentation; it was with tears that she was forced to tell Bertie that his love was not returned, that she loved another--Gussie, in fact. But she will always regard Bertie as a much beloved friend, and it is clear that if Gussie should fail her, she'll be seeking out Bertie instead.

This simple situation provides much merriment and confusion throughout a whole host of Jeeves and Wooster novels, as Bertie finds himself forced to do anything he can to shore up the Bassett-Fink-Nottle engagement. As Gussie is a fickle fellow, this leads him into strange places indeed.

In this particular book, Bertie's Aunt Agatha (she who "chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth") forces Bertie into going to far-off Deverill Hall, the abode of not one, not two, but five (5) fearsome Aunts. They are not Bertie's Aunts, and perhaps they do not kill rats with their teeth, but they are fearsome indeed. But there is worse: Gussie has gotten himself thrown into jail for thirty days for hunting newts in a public fountain while drunk, and is also expected to visit Deverill Hall. Should Madeline find out that her fiance was delayed due to police incarceration (and the Aunts are her relations), the engagement will be off, and Bertie will be for it.

Squaring his shoulders, Bertie does what he must: he toddles off to Deverill hall in the guise of Gussie Fink-Nottle. Of course, Gussie is released early, and arrives shortly after him in the guise of Bertie Wooster....

Sound complicated? I haven't even mentioned Corky Pirbright, who wishes to wed Esmond Haddock, the Aunts' nephew, or her brother Catsmeat, who wishes to marry Esmond's cousin, or the local vicar.

The Mating Season is kind of an odd bird; it has a harder, more cynical edge than the other Jeeves and Wooster novels--Corky Pirbright goes so far as to refer to the Aunts as "bitches", which is the sort of language you just don't find in Wodehouse.

It's still an enjoyable read, though, and enjoy it I did.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

This one follows a couple of books after The Mating Season. Once again Bertie is forced into service on behalf of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, and never has the threat of marriage seemed so inescapable. Worse, much of the story takes place at Totleigh Towers, the home of Madeline and her father Sir Watkyn, a man with whom Bertie had several run-ins on behalf of his Aunt Dahlia in The Code of the Woosters. And Totleigh Towers is currently infested by Roderick Spode, a would-be dictator of powerful build who is utterly devoted to Madeline's happiness; should Bertie disappoint her in any way, Spode would be glad to crush him between his massive palms.

All of this would seem to be enough for any young fop to have to cope with; but Sir Watkyn has recently acquired for a ridiculous sum a black statuette much coveted by Bertie's Uncle Thomas; his good-and-deserving Aunt, Aunt Dahlia, blackmails him into trying to acquire it. It's no use, of course, for neither Sir Watkyn nor Spode have forgotten the affair of the Silver Cow Creamer.

It's one of the joys of the Wodehouse oeuvre that you know everything is going to work out well in the end; it's the only thing that keeps the dramatic tension (as absurd as the situations are) from becoming overwhelming. And indeed, Jeeves saves the day as usual, at the last minute, to Bertie's great relief and that of all of the other couples in the book whose names I haven't bothered to mention.

Summer Lightning
Heavy Weather
By P.G. Wodehouse

I'm reviewing these two books together because, although written some years apart, they form a single extended narrative of life, love, and the care of pigs at Blandings Castle. Blandings Castle is, of course, the home of Clarence, the Earl of Emsworth, and owner of Empress of Blandings, winner of the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show. There is every chance that the Empress will be able to take the prize for an unprecedented second time, and the Earl is therefore much concerned with her care and feeding, and with the nefarious schemes of Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, owner of the Pride of Matchingham, the second place pig.

But all this is background. In the foreground is the Earl's brother, Galahad Threepwood, a superannuated man-about-town who is now in the process of writing his supremely scandalous memoirs. Publishing magnate Lord Tilbury is bent on publishing them; Galahad's sister, Lady Constance Keeble (a typical Aunt), and Sir Gregory are bent on suppressing them. Then add in Lady Constance's daughter Miss Millicent, and Hugo Carmody, the young man who wishes to marry her; Ronnie Fish, son of Galahad's other sister, Lady Julia Fish (another typical Aunt); and Sue Brown, a chorus girl, beloved of Ronnie; and stir well. What with pig-napping, imposters, and private detectives, enough material is stirred up for two whole books, and here they area.

I must say, Blandings Castle is my least favorite of Wodehouse's extended series; but Blandings is still better than anything you're likely to see on television these days.

Laughing Gas
By P.G. Wodehouse

Lord Havershot, a member of the Drones Club who has recently ascended to an Earldom, is dispatched (by an Aunt, of course) to California--to Hollywood, in fact--there to talk sense to his bibulous cousin Egremont who has contracted a most inappropriate engagement. On the way he meets and falls in love with leading lady April June, a pill and adventuress of the first water. All is in place for him to make an utter fool of himself, to the dismay of Aunts everywhere, when due to bad timing and a dentist's laughing gas he exchanges bodies with child star Joey Cooley, the Idol of American Motherhood.

Now, I usually hate plots of this kind; there's a high embarassment factor that has me writhing in my seat. If I see it in a TV movie I usually have to get up and leave the room. But, miraculously, the Wodehouse touch is so light and deft that I enjoyed it immensely. Add to that Wodehouse's evocation of Los Angeles in the 1930's (complete down to street names and an obvious stand-in for the Angelus Temple), and you have a remarkably charming and satisfying book.

The Chinese Gold Murders
The Chinese Lake Murders
The Chinese Bell Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Nail Murders
The Emperor's Pearl
The Lacquer Screen
The Haunted Monastery
By Robert van Gulik

Judge Dee is a classic Chinese hero: the brave, noble, and perspicacious magistrate who looks after his district with care, dispensing justice even-handedly to rich and poor alike. An historical figure of the seventh century T'ang dynasty, he features in many legends and detective novels of the Ming dynasty of almost a thousand years later.

In 1949 Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, translated one of these novels, the Dee Goong An, into english; it is currently available as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. It became very popular, and van Gulik was encouraged to translate more of the same. And herein lay a difficulty: few of the Ming era detective novels were still extant, and of those that were few would be to the taste of a modern Western audience as the magistrate tended to solve the crimes by deus ex machina rather than the solid deduction of the modern mystery novel. Indeed, he'd chosen to translate the Dee Goong An precisely because it was an oddity in this regard.

But the demand was unceasing, and so van Gulik embarked on an unpremeditated career as a novelist--and, more surprisingly, as a novelist in the english language. He began by pulling plots from the Ming-era novels at his disposal, and updating their solutions for modern tastes; and though the sources referred to many different magistrates, he gave all of the their cases to the celebrated and perspicacious Judge Dee. In doing so, he followed the Chinese form: each novel concerns three cases that arise during Judge Dee's normal work as a magistrate. The Judge does not have the luxury of pursuing each case one at a time; rather, all three investigations must go on concurrently, and the magistrate must take into account the possibility that they are all related.

The Judge Dee novels, in addition to being satisfying tales of detection and suspense, paint a compelling picture of Chinese life. Following van Gulik's models, the novels, though set in the T'ang era, show life as it was in the Ming era. And van Gulik succeeded in a most difficult thing: he made Judge Dee a character we can sympathize and identify with without disguising or downplaying the great philosophical moral differences between ourselves and a loyal magistrate of the sixteenth century. Judge Dee is no product of a modern liberal democracy transplanted into a past era, as so many of the heroes I see in historical mysteries are. His wives (eventually he has three) are not modern women eager to prove themselves in a man's world; to the extent they appear at all, they stay in the family quarters and attend to their own business. Dee's society is rigidly stratified; not only his wives but all of the other characters act according to their stations.

It's not a world I'd want to live in, I'll grant you that. But it's always refreshing to encounter a novelist who manages to present historical societies as they were, without painting them over to suit modern ideas of political correctness. And on top that, they are top-notch mysteries. If you're a mystery fan, and you've not read them, you've got a real treat in store--especially as this is only half of the fourteen Judge Dee novels van Gulik wrote.

I first read all of them in late 1998 and early 1999; if you go to our Robert van Gulik page, you'll find links to the reviews I wrote then. Or you can just bide your time; no doubt I'll get to them the rest next month.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers
The Burglar In The Closet
The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
The Burglar In The Library
By Lawrence Block

I spent one long weekend this month nursing a cold, and when I do that I read a lot. Plus, I don't want to read anything terribly challenging. Plus I don't want to have to spend a lot of time deciding what to read next. A familiar mystery series is just what the doctor orders, and this time I picked Bernie Rhodenbarr, Manhattan Burglar and Bookstore Owner. The books mostly run to type: a murder is committed in or about an apartment or home on the same night when Bernie's done some burgling there, and Bernie has to find out who did it or swing for it himself.

A lot of fun, but reading them all at once was probably a mistake.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
A Monstrous Regiment of Women
A Letter of Mary
The Moor
O Jerusalem
By Laurie R. King

Generally, I have a pretty low opinion of authors who use other people's characters as the basis of their own creative work. It's one of those "thou shalt nots" that was drilled into my head in school. Thou shalt not combine two independant clauses with a comma. Thou shalt not use the word "in regards to" unless you want to look like a pompous fop. Thou shalt not look at other people's tests while taking one yourself. Cheating is actually a better word for it. However, Laurie King has done such amusing things with the character of Sherlock Holmes and, well, it is after he's retired and Dr. Watson has supposedly stopped writing stories about him. And she does credit Conan Doyle as the writer behind the Sherlock Holmes stories, though more as an editor for Watson, so I guess don't feel too bad recommending these books highly. In fact, I found them so entertaining I tore through the entire series in about ten days. I even read some of one while cooking the pasta for dinner. It was not al dente. The pasta, not the book. And the one about the two independant clauses, I never follow that one either.

The premise behind these books goes something like this. Sherlock Holmes has retired to Sussex to raise bees and write monographs and articles on detecting technique. Mary Russell, a fifteen year old orphan whose parents and brother died tragically before her eyes, has moved into a neighboring farm with her nasty, evil, manipulative aunt. Mary is extremely intelligent, keenly observant, and hates her aunt who just happens to have control of Mary's huge fortune until she comes of age in 6 years.

While walking in the countryside to get away from her aunt and reading at the same time in order not to waste time, she literally walks into Holmes as he is sitting on the roadside, observing bees. Not to give away too much of the plot, he is stunned by her keen powers of observation, she is intrigued by his reputation as well as his kindly, if a tad snooty, attention and the partnership of Russell and Holmes begins. She spends time at the Holmes cottage, learning detection and linear thinking from Holmes and being mothered by the good Mrs Hudson, Holmes's very proper housekeeper. Each book involves some mystery that Russell and Holmes team up to solve. The relationship between them matures as Mary Russell does and she develops in much the same way any teenager moves into adulthood, going off to college at Oxford, majoring in religious studies and coming home on the weekends to visit and solve mysteries with Holmes.

The plot twists in all the novels are amusing and the characters that move in and out of the books, particularly Billy and Mycroft, help with the continuity from one book to the next. King creates an intelligent, stubborn, independant, feminist young woman to play against a more humanized, aging though still sharp as a tack Holmes. She also adds historically real people from the time as part of the story and period details that are wonderful. I loved Russell's Morris that she blasts around the countryside in. Morris was a British car company that made cars until the 60's or 70's and I just happen to have one sitting in my garage.

The books reminded me of the Peabody/Emerson series by Elizabeth Peters. The love interest is there though not as strongly stated as in the Peabody stories but the flavor is much the same. My main regret is that there are no more of them to read. At least not right now. And that other authors don't cheat and crib characters from works not their own quite so well.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 April 2002
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