Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

Found this on the discount table for $5, or I'd have just gotten it from the library. This is another in the Mary Russell series, in which this Jewish American/English young (!) woman has married Sherlock Holmes, and they solve mysteries together, often for Holmes brother Mycroft.

In this installment, they leave India and head for the United States. Mary's family died in a car crash when she was 14, and she left for England to live with an aunt. This is her first time back since then. She has estate business to settle, but as the boat approaches California, she has three recurring nightmares that only get worse. A little armchair psychoanalysis by Holmes, and she is forced to realize that she and her family were living in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, and that something happened to affect her family, but that she has shut away the memory in the "locked room" of her mind.

Poor Russell not only has to deal with the estate matters, and the trauma of remembering the big earthquake and fire, but she believes she caused the auto accident that killed the rest of her family. She was squabbling with her brother in the back seat, which caused her father to pull his attention away from the road when the accident happened. She was thrown clear, and the rest of her family died.

Much of the book is taken up with Russell's returning memories, and her emotions when she returns to many of her childhood sites. Meanwhile, Holmes is scurrying around watching over her, hiring Dashiell Hammett as a temporary sidekick, and generally investigating Russell's past. He becomes convinced that her parents were killed deliberately, and that it was not Russell's fault at all. She refuses to see it, and insists there is no mystery for over 300 pages of a 400 page novel.

It turns out that something happened during the 1906 earthquake--a former black sheep friend of Charles Russell, Russell's father, showed up with a tin of cash and jewels that he had looted during the fires, and asked Russell to keep it hidden in his garden. Charles was disgusted, but felt his former friend had some claim to him, so Charles wrote out a check for the value of the loot and told his friend to never come back.

This lead to some strife between Russell's parents, and her mother took the children to live in England for the next six years, apparently to keep them safe from this "friend." The family reunited in San Francisco, and Charles was scheduled to enter the army for WWI. So he wrote a letter explaining what his friend had done, as well as his part in it, on the theory that then it could not be the basis of blackmail.

The false friend found out something about this letter, and sabotaged the brakes to silence the family. Turns out he also killed Russell's psychiatrist and the two servants from the house. When Mary Russell returned, he tried to find and destroy the letter, or kill her as well.

The most interesting part of this novel is the reverse feng shui Holmes uses to locate the hidden loot. This is (potentially) like those fun old Golden Age detective novels, where the criminal leaves clever clues, or Your Rich Uncle converted his fortune into rare stamps, then put the hiding place into a secret crossword puzzle inlaid in the tile at the bottom of the swimming pool. Sadly, King simply brings in a Chinese Master, who stares at a map, then points to spot. Gone is the chance to intrigue us with the cleverness of the plot, or give us some information on this odd practice, and what Holmes thinks about it. Instead, it basically happens off stage, and we don't get to go on a treasure hunt. Bummer.

Of course, Laurie R. King is a very good writer, and it's certainly an enjoyable story. But I would have liked more mystery and less psychoanalysis.

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