So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Justice Hall. Laurie R. King

Justice Hall starts out far-fetched but then develops quietly and consistently into a great mystery novel. Returning from weeks spent on the wild Moors (see her book The Moor), Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are ready to settle down in their Sussex cottage for a rest when there is a knock at the door. It is their Bedouin buddy Ali who, with his brother Mahmoud, had served as a guide to the disguised couple during their 1919 visit to Palestine (related in O Jerusalem).

It seems that Ali and Mahmoud aren't Middle Eastern at all. Their real names are Alistair and Marsh (Maurice). And they are not just British. Due to some heavy pruning of the family tree, Marsh is now to become the Seventh Duke of Beauville and is living in Justice Hall, the family mansion, with Ali residing down the road at Old Badger Place.

Holmes and Russell are invited to visit and are drawn slowly into the mysteries of the family and its bloodline. All of the classic British estate mystery novel cliches are here: the shot gone astray during a hunt, hidden staircases, obsequious servants, dressing for dinner, ne'er-do-well relatives, endless tromps through the estate grounds, and even a costume ball. Yet they seem vibrant and appropriate rather than tired and reheated.

Since this series is based on the author's claim of being an editor to a set of notebooks purportedly left by the mysterious Mary Russell, the reader expects these stories to be grounded in historic fact. Yet there seems to be no real Duke of Beauville, no Justice Hall, not even the local towns seem to exist in any online search. This is such a change from the previous book in the series, The Moor, where Russell and Holmes visit the very real Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould during his final year on earth. Also, when it turns out that Marsh's marriage was one of convenience for his lesbian wife, I kept waiting for Marsh and Ali to "come out" - which never happened. Instead we are left with them appearing to be sexless middle-aged Peter Pans wishing to return to their life or adventure rather than growing up.

It takes a while for a plot to develop, but for those patient enough to wait, the story is wonderfully rich and satisfying.

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