Review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King

dreaming spies by laurie r kingFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: mystery
Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #13
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Date Released: February 17, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan. The cruising steamer Thomas Carlyle is leaving Bombay, bound for Kobe. Though they’re not the vacationing types, Russell is looking forward to a change of focus—not to mention a chance to travel to a location Holmes has not visited before. The idea of the pair being on equal footing is enticing to a woman who often must race to catch up with her older, highly skilled husband.

Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer: not an unlikely career choice for a man richer in social connections than in pounds sterling. And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be.

Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.

My Review:

The title of this book is a pun, based on poet Matthew Arnold’s description of Oxford as the “city of dreaming spires”. It is fitting that this title derive from poetry, as many of the chapter headings are snippets of haiku, and the repeated theft of a book by Matsuo Bashō, one of the early masters of the haiku form of poetry.

There are also plenty of points in the story where it seems that some, or all, of the spies are, in fact dreaming. Or at least daydreaming. One of the unusual aspects of this case is that Russell and Holmes do not seem to be the prime movers of events. They are acted upon more often than they are acting. They believe (perhaps dream) that they are the “Plan A” of much of the mystery that is solved. But at the end, they discover that they have always been “Plan B” or sometimes even “Plan C” for the person who has been in control all along.

game by laurie r king Although this story takes place upon their return from California and the events in Locked Rooms, the actions in the “present day” mostly serve as a frame to a story that happened earlier in their journey. Dreaming Spies tells of the events in Japan that have been hinted at in previous books, and most of the action takes place between The Game and Locked Rooms. Also between The Game and the Holmes insert into The Art of Detection, which seemed to occur simultaneously with Locked Rooms.

As much as I love this series, I will confess that the time-line is getting very confusing. The series is on book 13, but it takes place between books 7 and 8.

This mystery begins with the arrival of a large rock as well as the gentlemen to place it properly in Holmes’ garden in Sussex. While Holmes and Russell have not yet returned when the rock is, let’s say installed, the report from Mrs. Hudson is enough to connect the new addition to events they participated in while on their way to and in Japan.

They began by being bored. Well, at least Holmes was bored. It was a long cruise from India to Japan, and while Russell was quite content to read her books, Holmes, as usual, was not.

To keep Holmes from jumping overboard (not quite but almost) he began a private investigation into some strange occurrences on the ship. His inveterate curiosity was aroused by the presence of an old foe – a blackmailer who he put out of business, but was unable to put away. Holmes has never believed that the man was not fully complicit in the old scheme, but Russell finds him not quite bright enough to has masterminded anything. So the question regards what he might be up to now, and who is the brains of whatever it is.

Someone is working with Lord Darley, and one woman has already left the ship in mysterious circumstances in order to get away from him. Another woman has boarded the ship in equally mysterious circumstances, but her purpose involves Holmes and Russell much more than Darley.

More than they ever figure out, until the very end of the caper. Holmes starts by chasing an old enemy, and ends by discovering that he and Russell have been used by the Crown Prince of Japan.

That they would have helped anyway is never a question. That someone was able to keep them in the dark and still get their help makes her a much better spy than even one of Mycroft’s operatives.

That nothing is as it seems, and that our heroes do not even have a glimpse of how they have been tricked (all in a good cause) makes Dreaming Spies an extremely interesting case. The game is indeed afoot, but for once, it is not Holmes” or even Russell’s, game.

beekeeper's apprentice new mediumEscape Rating B+: I love this series, and have ever since The Beekeeper’s Apprentice more than ten years ago. However, the timeline is getting extremely confusing. This story takes place before Mary’s falling out with Mycroft, which makes her initial suspicion that Haruki Sato is one of his agents somewhat perplexing.

The story of Holmes’ and Russell’s involvement with the blackmailer that turns into a scheme to protect the young Crown Prince of Japan from his own foolishness builds slowly and wraps itself around both the reader and the Holmeses like the folds of a sari, to mix metaphors and Holmes’ adventures.

Holmes and Russell think that they are helping an agent of the Japanese crown to recover some stolen property. It wasn’t stolen from him, he gave it away first. Holmes wants to finally see one of his old enemies get his just deserts, and Haruki Sato wants to get the stolen secret document back for her Emperor.

Haruki is an absolutely fascinating character. She is nothing like she appears to be, and Holmes never penetrate all her layers of deception. She manages to use him, and that is a rare feat.

Through Haruki and the tasks she sets for Holmes and Russell, we get both an introduction to Japan and its culture in the years between the wars, and a less sensational but more realistic description of what it meant to be a ninja in service to the Crown. Along with a heart-breaking view of what that service may cost.

Haruki’s mission is to save face for the Crown Prince, no matter what she has to do or suffer along the way. We understand at the end that Holmes and Russell would have gladly helped her without her deception, but that she couldn’t count on that. We know they would not have said “no”, but she can’t be 100% certain, so she brings them into her plans unwittingly.

Something that always gets my attention is the reminder of how close the author has brought Sherlock Holmes to our own time. We think of Holmes as a creature of the Victorian Age, but he is alive and active in the 1920s at this point in the story. The Crown Prince of Japan, who later becomes Emperor, is Hirohito, who was the Japanese Emperor during World War II. We see him here as a young man, just learning the intricacies of his future role. But Hirohito died in 1989, a period very much within living memory.

The story in Dreaming Spies is a slow-building one. We start with a cruise that should be a time of relaxation, and end at a breakneck pace as Haruki finally finds the item she has been searching for all along, and Holmes finally uncovers the man behind the old blackmailer. It is seldom that Holmes is in a case where he is outplayed, so watching him both lose and win at the same time was a treat.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Pirate King

Investigating possible evildoers while filming a silent movie about a movie about a comic opera. It should have been a farce. But in Laurie R. King’s The Pirate King, it’s Holmes and Russell, so it’s an absolutely marvelous froth instead.

Mary Russell does not particularly want to spend a fortnight (that’s two weeks to us Americans) cooped up in Sussex with her brother-in-law Mycroft. In their last meeting (The God of the Hive) Russell discovered that some of Mycroft’s actions on the part of the government were even shadier than she had thought. And Russell, being Russell, didn’t cavil at letting Mycroft know exactly what she thought. This does not contribute to family harmony, even in the Holmes family.

Inspector Lestrade needs someone to infiltrate a film company that seems to have a run of bad luck. Fflytte Films makes a film about gunrunning, and suddenly there’s a rash of illegal firearms everywhere. Fflytte makes a movie about rum-running, and there’s bathtub gin all over the place (1924–Prohibition, remember?) When the producer’s assistant goes missing, Lestrade wants someone who can type to substitute, so he can get a man on the inside. Russell “volunteers” to get away from the Holmes brothers’ family reunion.

Fflytte Films leaves London for Morocco by way of Lisbon to film a movie about a film company making a movie about the making of a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Which is in Wales. But Fflytte Films would never do anything so boring as to film in Wales. Or so boring as to use anything like the real story of the opera. Instead of 4 daughters, the Major General of famous song has 13 daughters. And then, there are the pirates. Since there are 13 daughters, there need to be 13 pirates. And because Fflytte Films is famous for its realism, Randolph Fflytte recruits real pirates, along with a real, honest-to-goodness (or badness) Pirate King.

Escape Rating A+: I stayed up until 1 am to finish this book. This was the lighter side of Holmes and Russell, and was a welcome antidote to the darker doings of The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive. The Pirate King is a lark. Some serious events happen, but there is a happily ever after in this one. Even though it turns out that all of the events were manipulated by Mycroft from the beginning, it is worth it just for the image of Holmes playing an actor playing the Major General courting Russell under the eyes of the entire film cast and crew. Priceless!

The Beekeeper and his Apprentice

In 1914, Sherlock Holmes participated in his last official case as published by Dr. John Watson. The case, His Last Bow, took place at the eve of the First World War, and detailed the wrapping up of two years of Holmes’ infiltration into German espionage on British soil just before the Great War. At the end of the story, Holmes and Watson say goodbye, and Holmes returns to Sussex to keep bees. Mrs. Hudson even takes part in the case, going undercover as the German official’s housekeeper in order to assist Holmes.

But after the case is over, Holmes is left with nothing to do. And His Majesty’s government comes to the realization that Holmes might have been killed, or even worse, kidnapped, during the course of his work. Ransoming a national treasure like Sherlock Holmes would have been even more embarrassing than a state funeral!

So Holmes is forced into a retirement with no hope of any cases to enliven his days. In the official Canon, this was never good. He descended into black moods, played the violin at all hours of the day and night, and resorted to cocaine. Mental inactivity was always a worse enemy than any criminal mastermind.

In 1994, mystery writer Laurie R. King published the first of the memoirs that she received from Miss Mary Russell. The memoirs were delivered by UPS in an old fashioned steamer trunk wrapped in cardboard. The stories they told were incredible.

According to Miss Russell’s memoirs, in 1915, when she was 15, she quite literally tripped over Sherlock Holmes as she was walking over the Sussex Downs with her nose buried in a copy of Virgil. She was uncertain at first whether he was a tramp or just an Eccentric. During their subsequent conversation, his upper-class accent firmly placed him in the Eccentric category. But it wasn’t until she correctly deduced that he was attempting to find a group of feral bees to re-stock his hive that he realized that she might possibly have a brain. The story of their continued association, and Mary Russell’s training as Sherlock Holmes’ apprentice is told in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Until now, the entire Mary Russell “Kanon” has been told from Russell’s perspective, and an absorbing one it has been. But in preparation for this fall’s release of the next book in the saga, titled The Pirate King, the story of Holmes’ and Russell’s initial meeting is finally being told from Holmes’ point of view.

Beekeeping for Beginners is Holmes’ story of that fateful meeting. It has always been clear that Holmes rescued Russell, but until now, he has never been willing to admit that she saved him. Her training gave him purpose. Her sharpness of mind sharpened his own back to its laser-like brilliance. We all need to be needed. Even the Great Detective.

I discovered The Beekeeper’s Apprentice on audio when it first came out. The premise intrigued me. I had read a chunk of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but the idea of Holmes taking on an apprentice was, well, implausible, to say the least. But Mary Russell is more than a match for Holmes, and the period is perfect. She arrives in his life after the Conan Doyle Canon is over. I was captivated and enthralled, and each new book is a delight. But with Beekeeping for Beginners, I went back and reread not just the first part of Beekeeper’s Apprentice, but also His Last Bow. to see the whole story fabric knit together. It works. From the high of his last case, to the slough of despond of total ennui that Holmes so often experienced, to the bright, sharp girl who needs training, and becomes…if you haven’t read them yet, I envy your upcoming discovery.