Monday, May 7, 2018

Off Book: ISLAND OF THE MAD by Laurie R King

Summary (from
A June summer’s evening, on the Sussex Downs, in 1925.  Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are strolling across their orchard when the telephone rings: an old friend’s beloved aunt has failed to return following a supervised outing from Bedlam.  After the previous few weeks—with a bloody murder, a terrible loss, and startling revelations about Holmes—Russell is feeling a bit unbalanced herself.  The last thing she wants is to deal with the mad, and yet, she can’t say no.
The Lady Vivian Beaconsfield has spent most of her adult life in one asylum after another, yet she seemed to be improving—or at least, finding a point of balance in her madness.  So why did she disappear?  Did she take the family’s jewels with her, or did someone else?  The Bedlam nurse, perhaps?
The trail leads Russell and Holmes through Bedlam’s stony halls to the warm Venice lagoon, where ethereal beauty is jarred by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, where the gilded Lido set may be tempting a madwoman, and where Cole Porter sits at a piano, playing with ideas…

I'd just finished another (modern, high school-aged) Holmes adaptation when I received an e-ARC of ISLAND OF THE MAD, so I happily dove into the latest in the series I had discovered as a high schooler myself.

I read the first Russell and Holmes book as a teenager, over a winter break when a personal tragedy had struck my life. Going with Mary Russell on her adventures, the greatest starting over her winter break at Oxford, was a lifeline. Mary was better than me, but similar in ways not many girls were in the few teen girl protagonist books I got my hands on were. Going to see Laurie King at a book signing was the first author event I attended outside of school author visits. These books, therefore, have always held a special place in my heart. I've also enjoyed King's other series, some of which cross over with her Sherlockian exploits.

Each book offers clearly copious historical research, arch humor, and a certain twist, whether it's exploring the romance of Russell and Holmes, shining a light on the darker dealings of the British Empire, or digging into the psychological damage of trauma and addiction. ISLAND OF THE MAD seems to give a vacation to the poor Russell and Holmes, who have been on one grueling adventure after another in the last several books. During their efforts to ascertain the safety of a friend's aunt, they get to enjoy themselves, helping to invent water skiing and Cole Porter lyrics. (In this way it's more in the vein of THE PIRATE KING than some of their darker adventures, though there are heftier themes present as well.)

King's writing is always engaging and utterly readable. I noted down several lines that had me bursting out laughing, as Russell contemplates attacking her boorish dinner companion with a fork and runs through her own feminist thoughts to herself. The dinner with the awful lord is like Facebook with your parents' cousins, except you're hoping the lord will be a murder victim, rather than just blocking the distant family members.

The book delves into downright chilling discussions of fascism taking hold in democratic nations and thugs succeeding and taking power, and the very real implications this has on people's lives, especially queer people and women. In this way King makes this historical book relevant to today's unfortunate political situation as well as providing a cathartic response in the success of Russell and Holmes' and the friends they enlist to help.

I attended a panel at a book festival this weekend and at the "Thrillers" panel someone mentioned Laurie King's method of using a spreadsheet to ensure clues are dropped at a good pace and the characters' lives are fully worked out. The care she takes is evident in the clear presentation of her plots. This book has the bonus fun of (often short) chapters from Holmes' (third person limited) POV, which, ultimately, delightfully intersects with Russell's efforts on the behalf of her friend's relative.

I can't speak specifically to the representation of mental illness--it appears respectful--but as always King brings in positive viewpoints on the reality of life for queer characters living in a less accepting time. This makes King's books some of my favorite historical mysteries. If you haven't read any of King, I do recommend starting with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, but when you do make it through the first few you could skip ahead to ISLAND OF THE MAD for a fun adventure.

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