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Column: Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell are getting me through COVID-19. They can help you too

A book jacket for Laurie R. King's "Riviera Gold."
A book jacket for Laurie R. King’s “Riviera Gold.”
(Bantam)

Can someone please explain to me how Enola Holmes got a movie before Mary Russell did?

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t wait to see Millie Bobby Brown play Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister. I regularly re-read the ragged paperback boxed set of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous tales that I got when I was child, and from the moment I saw “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (at age 10, in a theater), I have wandered far and often among the Holmesian pastiche. There’s a reason Holmes is the most oft-adapted character in literary history. In the 56 stories Conan Doyle wrote, the man who knew everything about everybody, who could deduce 17 things from a bit of mud and a cigarette end revealed so little of himself that he became the greatest mystery of them all.

I was never so happy in my life as when there were two versions on television and one in theaters. Anthony Horowitz, Michael Chabon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — I’ve read all the new Sherlocks and followed with great delight the evolution of his female counterparts: Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series, Colleen Gleason’s Stoker & Holmes (sister of Bram, niece of Sherlock) series, “Miss Sherlock” (set in Japan, with subtitles, on HBO) and Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series.

But no Sherlock character save the original have I loved so well or so long as Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell. The young, Jewish, half-American, half-British, theology scholar-left-handed knife thrower-wealthy bluestocking-brilliant investigator who, at age 15, meets the the world’s first consulting detective as he’s languishing among his Sussex bees and marries him pretty much the moment she turns 21.

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When the world was struck down by the novel coronavirus, I consoled myself by re-reading each of the 15 Russell & Holmes novels, traveling with the duo all over the British isles, as well as to Palestine, India, Morocco, Japan, Italy. The books, though rooted deeply in canon, are feats of detective fiction by way of adventure, historical, political and travel drama with more than a few insightful meditations on modern marriage thrown in.

They are also the definition of binge-able, which is why I do not understand their continual absence from film and television “in development” lists; I for one could certainly use 80 or so episodes of Russell & Holmes to brighten my screen.

Time lost more than 100 Sherlock Holmes films. UCLA detectives — and Robert Downey Jr. — want to find them with “Searching for Sherlock: The Game’s Afoot.”

Fortunately, there is a new book: “Riviera Gold” debuted in June, offering a bright and shiny Côte d’Azur distraction from a summer of COVID-19 surges, mask wars and the increasing realization that all will not be well any time soon.

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Which is exactly what King intended.

She had originally planned to set the 16th book amid mysterious events involving the Tower of London. But after the 2016 election, King — an American living in Northern California — found herself unwilling to dwell in the dark and bloody politics that haunt that very British edifice.

“It’s a lot,” she says. “Murder, betrayal, very brutal politics. I just … could not.”

As it turns out, not even Sherlock Holmes can escape the disruption of the Trump administration.

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With the Russell/Holmes timeline creeping slowly into the mid-1920s — the previous book, “Island of the Mad,” deals, in part, with the rise in Italian fascism — King could have gone very dark indeed. Instead, she decided to put the Tower story aside and write a “summer book,” she says — one in which “there are bad guys, but they are unattached to what is going on around me.”

“Riviera Gold” delivers much of what Mary Russell fans have come to expect from the series, which began more than a quarter of a century ago with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.”

There is a vividly created and scrupulously researched milieu — in this case, Monaco as it struggles in 1926 to become a playground of the summer as well as the winter. There are a historical figures — Pablo Picasso, Zelda Fitzgerald and Lillie Langtry in roles of varying importance. There is a murder, involving the landlady Mrs. Hudson, whose backstory King fleshed out in No. 14, “The Murder of Mary Russell.”

And at the center of it all, of course, is one of the most unexpected and modern marriages in literary history.

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There is not, however, the recognition of deeper ills that infuse many of the other books. Not that she plans to shy away from darker themes forever. King, who has two other detective series — Kate Martinelli and Stuyvesant & Grey — as well as five standalone novels to her credit, is currently working on the next Russell/Holmes, which will be set in Romania. But given recent events, and with main characters whose relationship began in 1915, King is considering the possibilities of a story set against the last great global pandemic.

“It’s difficult to figure out how to make use of it,” King says of the 1918 influenza. “Up until the mid-20th century, people dying from disease was not unusual. A lot of us have our grandparents who told us stories about being in the pandemic, but it sort of got subsumed into the horrors of the Great War.”

Still, she says, as a backdrop for suspense, a pandemic offers a panoply of possibilities. “The themes of the ‘locked room’ are certainly heightened,” she says. “If something happens to someone who was isolated, how long would it take before anyone noticed?”

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If she sounds a bit ghoulish, well, she is a mystery writer, albeit one who came late-ish to the form.

King who, like Russell, is a theology scholar with a feminist bent, did not write fiction until she was in her 30s. A science-fiction fan, she began with a futuristic novel, only to discover that she had no idea how to end the thing. So she tried a mystery, drawn by the form’s structure.

“It gave me a skeleton key on which to hang all sorts of characters,” she says. “As long as the main storyline is sound, you can do just about anything with it.”

She wanted to create a female and feminist version of Sherlock Holmes, and she thought the best way to do that was with Holmes alongside, to underscore the differences and the similarities. So she created Russell, who meets the great detective on a hillside one day and quickly becomes his apprentice and then his partner. Giving Holmes a young female foil seemed aimed directly at the detective’s legion of female fans, many of whom (who, me?) have no doubt imagined what it would be like to crack that famously rational exterior. But King was more interested in creating a complex female character than a romance — Russell’s transition from apprentice to partner is a much bigger part of the series than Holmes being humanized by love.

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“There is, of course, a whole genre of erotic Holmes, but this was never that,” King says. “These books began as Mary Russell books. Holmes was very much a straight man; the journey was hers.”

When she finished writing “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” however, no one in publishing seemed interested at all. So King tried another tack — creating Kate Martinelli, a modern San Francisco police detective — and had better luck. The first Martinelli book, “A Grave Talent,” won King the 1994 Edgar award for first novel. When asked if she had any more ideas, King tried again with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” which brought the pair quietly into the world. By the second book, “A Monstrous Regiment of Women,” Russell and Holmes’ meeting of minds becomes a meeting of hearts, albeit one in which anything remotely approaching romance surfaces only rarely and with maddening, though quite effective, brevity.

Some die-hard Sherlockians were outraged by the development anyway. “The kiss!” King says. “But when they realized that him brushing her hair was as racy as it was going to get, they settled down. Not that all of them like Russell, but quite a number of them do.”

It wasn’t until Russell and Holmes faced down mysteries involving ancient texts, Palestinian politics, the last days of the Raj, the San Francisco earthquake and, of course, the hound of the Baskervilles, that King turned her attention to the more established half of the duo.

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“After half a dozen books, I became more interested in Holmes,” she says, “how someone like that would change after the Great War. There’s a reason why Conan Doyle didn’t write any Holmes stories after World War I; society changed so much that he couldn’t imagine Sherlock Holmes in it.”

With the aid of a young wife, King could. And her Holmes is in some ways truer to the original than many modern versions, which often attempt to humanize the character by emphasizing his flaws. The original stories may be short on character development and long on plotting details designed to showcase the detective’s brilliance, but Holmes was human enough. He laughed (and at least once almost cried), expressed regret and empathy even as he deduced. He worried about the safety of his clients (particularly the women) and took great delight in his ability to fool even Dr. Watson with his talent for disguise.

Indeed, Conan Doyle’s genius lay in his ability to create a character as solid and elastic as the form he came to represent — everyone thinks they know Sherlock Holmes, even though the notions of who he is are wildly different. Holmes, to borrow King’s metaphor, is a skeleton key on which many versions can, and do, hang.

But the Russell/Holmes stories are Russell stories, told mostly in first person from her point of view. And King spreads Conan Doyle’s essential ingredients across a far larger canvas than he ever did. Brother Mycroft Holmes’ mysteriously powerful position in the British government allows King to send her characters all over the world, and in later books, raise questions about the nature of that power. Along the way, the duo encounters an anthology’s worth of historical figures — T.E. Lawrence, Gen. Edmund Allenby, Japan’s then-Prince Hirohito, Cole Porter — and Holmes is not the only fictional character made “real”; characters including Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim also make appearances, the latter quite extensively.

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A cache of archival letters being auctioned in England show that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was the subject of a police conspiracy.

“I wanted to write India [in ‘The Game’], because I had been there,” King says, “and my husband was born there. So India … well, the last days of the Raj would be interesting. Then I thought about how, for many people, the last days of the Raj was epitomized by ‘Kim,’ and I realized that Kim was accessible to me because of the dates.

“‘Garment of Shadows’ I kind of backed into. I was in Lisbon visiting my daughter, and we flew to Morocco. I just fell in love with Fez, this weird medieval city, so I decided to write a book there. I wanted to play with the trope of amnesia — so many stories of the period had some character or other losing their memory, and Fez seemed like the perfect place.”

In “Riveria Gold,” Russell befriends Sara Murphy, an actual American expat who with her husband helped expand tourism in Monte Carlo by forming a salon of artists — including Picasso, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald — on the Côte d’Azur. King had discovered the Murphys while researching Porter and his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, for “Island of the Mad”; reading about the Murphys, she came across Langtry, who lived in Monaco at the same time.

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Langtry, in King’s telling, is an old friend of Mrs. Hudson, who serves as the axle for “Riveria Gold.” Forced to leave England after the adventures of “The Murder of Mary Russell,” she is starting again among the casinos and pleasure seekers.

While many novelists have given us alternative versions of Conan Doyle‘s male supporting characters — Mycroft, Moriarty, even Inspector Lestrade — King may be the first to give Holmes’ long-suffering housekeeper her due. And in one scene of the latest novel, some very fancy undergarments. All very much in keeping with King’s devotion to peopling her novels with complicated and unexpected female characters.

Which may be the main reason I have returned to them repeatedly over the years — Mary Russell provides, and forces Holmes across, a fascinating bridge between the old world and the new. Yes, there are tea and crumpets, fancy balls and the British caste system, but there is also the recognition of the dangers, personal and political, of bigotry; a matter-of-fact (though never sensational) attitude toward sex; and an ongoing examination of the tension between world events and self-determination.

More important, there is none of the mournful and highly elitist “oh, a golden age is passing” nostalgia that so often haunts modern British period pieces (see, please, “Downton Abbey.”) King’s Holmes may be a Victorian adjusting to a new age, but he is not a victim of progress; neither Russell nor King will allow it. Mrs. Hudson’s Monaco escapades in “Riviera Gold” — including brushes with smugglers and the purchase of some fairly racy undergarments — make it clear that she too refuses to fade quietly amid the noise of the roaring ‘20s.

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“I would like to do an entire series on Mrs. Hudson,” King says. “How often do you read a novel whose main character is an old woman? I’m 67, and I don’t feel old. I figured that someone who’s 69 probably doesn’t feel old either. So why shouldn’t she have a book?”

Especially a fun, frothy summer book, written to keep the demons of this particular historic age at bay, if only for a little while.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, as I obviously have been, there is Russell/Holmes television series in the works. So everyone needs to mask up — the COVID-19 curve needs to flatten before this project can get made.

And the decision to wear a mask to make this happen is — well, sorry but it is — elementary.


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