Island of the Mad
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes - A novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes
Laurie R. King
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Laurie R. King’s New York Times bestselling series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes is “the most sustained feat of imagination in mystery fiction today” (Lee Child)!
The last thing Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, need is to help an old friend with her mad, missing aunt. Lady Vivian Beaconsfield has spent most of her adult life in one asylum after another, since the loss of her brother and father in the Great War. Although her mental state seemed to be improving, she’s now disappeared after an outing from Bethlem Royal Hospital . . . better known as Bedlam.
Russell wants nothing to do with the case—but she can’t say no. To track down the vanished woman, she must use her deductive instincts and talent for subterfuge—and enlist her husband’s legendary prowess. Together, the two travel from the grim confines of Bedlam to the murky canals of Venice—only to find the shadow of Benito Mussolini darkening the fate of a city, an era, and a tormented English lady of privilege.
Praise for Island of the Mad
“Full of lush details and clever twists.”—Booklist
“Once again validates Laurie R. King as the preeminent Holmes writer working today.”—Bookreporter
“A truly memorable mystery . . . Laurie King brings her always amazing imagination to the page to enthrall readers, as only she can do.”—Suspense Magazine
“Superb . . . shocking . . . Come for the mystery, stay for the sightseeing, the gibes at fascism, and the heroine’s climactic masquerade as silent film star Harold Lloyd.”—Kirkus Reviews
“There’s no shortage of entertainment. . . . If you are a fan of the series, you won’t be disappointed!”—San Francisco Book Review
“Well-plotted . . . This ranks as one of the better recent installments in this popular series.”—Publishers Weekly
Wake up, Russell!
I first encountered the Mary Russell books in high school, and fell in love with them. The early entries in the series combine great soul and wit: the intricate twists and turns of the plot are not only highly entertaining, but always serve the growth of the characters. Mary Russell could easily read as a Mary Sue, an impossibly brilliant girl capable of matching wits with Sherlock Holmes, complete with requisite tragic backstory. What saves her is her “stout heart”. Russell is believably broken by her past, but not for the purposes of melodrama. The first two thirds of the series are coming of age stories— each one a vital chapter in the growth of Holmes and Russell, as well as their relationship.
Unfortunately, the most recent novels have lacked the depth of their predecessors. Since “Pirate King”, the events of the stories have failed to affect Russell in any noticeable way. Despite a plethora of opportunities for character growth, Ms. King chooses to treat us with a formulaic Russell, whose narration, while charming, fails to sustain the story. I grant the place of comic adventure: “The Game” is one of the lighter entries in the series—yet even here, in one poignant image, Russell reflects on the consequences of deceiving innocents.
Now we come to this latest entry, “Island of the Mad”.
At this point in the series there are a number of growing questions: when will Russell finally confront Mycroft? Will the tension between the two slip over into Russell and Holmes’s marriage? What about Russell’s career in theology— has this vital part of her character been subsumed by all thing Sherlock? Will the constant wry asides about Holmes’s age ever shift to into a real disadvantage or disability? How will Russell cope with the revelations of the storied past of Mrs. Hudson, woman who Russell describes in the early books as a second mother? Will Russell ever grow back her hair?
Ms. King chooses to address none of these. Rather, the novel opens by poking mild fun at the material consequences of Mrs. Hudson’s departure, with the tired but requisite Russell-can’t-cook trope. From there we are swiftly propelled into the concerns of our old friend Ronnie, a woman whose life has apparently been consumed by her squalling son. Ronnie’s aunt, who grew up with her as a sister before becoming mentally unstable, has disappeared with her Bedlam nurse.
Without giving too much away, four major themes appear: the treatment of the mentally ill, the marginalization of homosexuals, the legally, financially, and culturally enshrined power of the aristocratic male over his female relatives, and finally, the impact of certain kinds of abuse on mental health (as an aside, what was meant to be a plot twist here was painfully obvious from the beginning).
Any one of these would make for an excellent story. In treating all of them, Ms. King did justice to none. Instead than an insightful commentary on an important issue, we were given shallow repetitions of the enlightened views of modern society. Nor did any of them affect Russell, although there are so many possibilities. Russell verges perilously close to Mary Sue territory as she encounters each situation with very modern sensibilities. For instance, She is more dismayed by the boredom of Bedlam than by contact with the insane (and fear of the mentally ill or disabled is something society struggles with even today—just consider the recent controversies over Down Syndrome).
My penultimate, and largest gripe, is that of Holmes and Russell’s marriage. In a book rife negative male-female power dynamics, the natural move would be to either place Russell and Holmes as a paradigm of a good, feminist-approved marriage— or build the tension between the two of them, utilizing the sour relationships among the other characters to highlight potential dangers to their union. Ms. King has, in fact, hinted at some of the difficulties the couple face. Russell has apparently given up her intellectual career, and remains comparatively inexperienced. Holmes worries about whether Russell would prefer to live a more carefree life, surrounded by her own generation.
Two particular incidents stood out:
In one, Russell comments on two characters’ marriage of convenience. She expresses sympathy for a woman who knowingly marries a gay man. Holmes points out that many people suppose that their marriage is a similar one. Russell is dismayed.
In the second, Russell enters a party bordering on an orgy. She describes a small core of self possession that permits her to enter into the crowd for the sake of the case, yet not fully submit. In particular, she chooses to take water instead of alcohol, rather than “give in to the fact that I would wake up the next morning under a table, or in someone’s bed” (a paraphrase, not an exact quote). This quote is I think meant to shock. But it wakes a whole new set of questions: is Russell wholly content with her marriage? If she had, in fact, slept with someone while drunk, how would that impact their marriage? When Russell is wryly offered a haven if she should become unhappy, Holmes is noticeably uncomfortable— yet she makes no move then or later to reassure him.
There is clearly potential for tension and growth here. Yet, like all the questions above, Ms. King chooses to leave them unresolved.
What remains is fast-paced jaunt, with a melodramatic and questionable finish. The solution to the case is both weak and dangerously out of character. It plays out in a melodramatic fashion, as Ms. King stoops to withholding Russell’s thoughts in order to retain the suspense. Their plan proceeds without a hitch, and the rabbit in their hat is a very ugly one indeed— yet, despite committing an action she and Holmes both claim to despise, Russell blithely calls it fun.
I can only hope that Ms. King plans to address these issues in future novels: that our stout hearted Russell will again begin to grow, to learn, and to deepen her extraordinary marriage with Holmes.
Island of the Mad
Disappointing - have read every book in this series but this one had a weak plot. As a Sherlockian it lacked facts necessary to support actions that Holmes would approve and act upon. Felt the authors own preferences strayed from the mysteries ejooyed by readers of SH
Island of the Mad
Great read. A little tedious in description after description of Venice. I would have liked to see a little more suspense and daring with Holmes and Russell together. And maybe a tad more affection between the married couple. Even a genius shows some affection - but, please, not romance novel style. The story still reads well and kept my interest throughout. It’s nice to have Russell/Holmes back and I hope Laurie King will keep them alive for more adventures.
- Category: Historical
- Published: Jun 12, 2018
- Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
- Seller: Penguin Random House LLC
- Print Length: 320 Pages
- Language: English
- Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes