I’ve always enjoyed Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes-Mary Russell stories, but I hadn’t read any for a while because they’d seemed to be too tangled up in early-20th-century Middle Eastern politics. (An exception was Pirate King, the one centered on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which was a delightful romp.) I was intrigued, however, by the description saying that this one focused on Holmes’s landlady/housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, about whom I knew little. (I should add that I am by no means a heavy-duty Sherlockian; I read most of the original stories long ago, and some pastiches, including King’s, since then, but that’s it.)
Although, as the title suggests, Mary is in peril from early on, Clara—or Clarissa, as she was originally, according to this story—Hudson definitely takes over the story. King does a fantastic job of developing her as a character and inventing a complex backstory for her, including detailed descriptions of her parents, her sister, her early life, and how she became involved with Holmes. The writing is wonderfully detailed. For instance, here is a description of the doll that Clarissa’s mother, Sally, received from her husband, Timmy Hudson, around the time of Clarissa’s birth, sent from a ship going to Australia on which Timmy was working as a sailor:
“He’d made a dolly longer than her hand, with stubby extremities and a knob for a head, stuffed firm with kapok. Tens of thousands of tight little knots had gone into its making, and a great deal of thought…. She ran her fingers over the little figure’s taut waxed-linen surface, feeling her husband’s hands on every tiny bump. How many hours had this taken him? What had been going on all around him while he worked, what conversations, what kinds of men at his side? Holding it to her face, she could smell the sea and the smouldering lamps, and the tobacco the others had smoked while he worked. She could smell his life, far away.”
The suspense is considerable, the mystery intriguing, and both Mary and Sherlock certainly play their parts—but the story comes alive with special vividness whenever Mrs. Hudson is on stage, which fortunately is most of the time. I would recommend this book, not only to fans of King’s series or of Holmes pastiches in general, but to anyone who wants to read a fascinating character study.