Fiction: “A Letter of Mary” by Laurie R. King

First: Oh, crap. The tag for the books I read this month are all going to be tagged “9/11.” Well, that does it — after I finish reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, I am now legally required to read at least one book about 9/11 or the Iraq War. (Does Stephen Colbert’s I Am America and So Can You count?)

Second: I have been sitting on this review for about a week. And when I say “sitting on it,” I mean “I’ve been meaning to do this for like a week, and today’s my first day off, and since I’ve gotten my roommate equally addicted to The Vampire Diaries, I can catch up on Conan while writing this review because I can’t continue my rewatch until she gets home.” Clearly, I need to use analogies, because I am overly verbose at times.

So: let’s begin with A Letter of Mary. The third title in the Russell/Holmes series, and the first one where Russell is married to Holmes. Holmes is becoming bored (noted by his forced ignorance of the papers), and Russell is straining her eyes translating ancient texts, working on her first scholarly book. And then she receives a note from a friend asking for a visit. The friend is Dorothy Ruskin, who she and Holmes met when they were in Jerusalem. She has a present for Russell: a beautiful jewelled box, with a letter potentially written by Mary Magdelene inside.

Miss Ruskin is killed in what appears to be a freak car accident. Holmes and Russell get involved because they believe that she was murdered. The case leads them to two primary suspects: a misogynistic Colonel Miss Ruskin had dinner with the night before her death, and her bitter sister who is left to take care of their elderly mother while ‘she plays in the dirt in Jerusalem’ [most likely not a quote, but definitely the sentiment].

During the course of the investigation, Holmes disguises himself as a workman to spy on Miss Ruskin’s sister, and Russell disguises herself as Secretary Mary Small, and goes to work with Colonel Misogyny (look, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to look it up because I really really like the name “Colonel Misogyny”). The reason Colonel Misogyny is a suspect is because Russell suspects Miss Ruskin told the Colonel about the Mary Magdelene letter, in which she refers to herself as an apostle of Christ. The idea that a woman would be one of Christ’s apostles would be sure to turn the entire Church on its ear. And because it’s not Colonel Understanding she’s having dinner with, it’s entirely possible that that letter could become motive for murder.

The final clues to the case are discovered when Russell hypnotizes a witness to Miss Ruskin’s murder. While Russell is not a psychiatrist, she has experience with hypnotism from her treatment following the deaths of her family members.

Finally, the mystery is solved and Russell and Holmes return to their cottage home in Sussex. After researching a bit more, Russell determines that the letter is actually from Mary Magdelene, but she chooses to keep the information hidden. She is aware of what that type of revelation would do to the religous sector, and while she believes the information should be revealed, she does not want to be the person responsible for bringing the information to the world.

Something that both Russell and Holmes do during all of these titles is throw Latin around like it’s regular English. And look, when I was in high school, I studied French, not Latin. As a result, these are the only bits of Latin I know: modus operandi [“method of operation], semper ubi sub ubi [“always wear underwear”], and post hoc, ergo propter hoc [“after, therefore, because of it“]. So when I’m reading a book and the following quotes happen and there is no following translation, the Alaina Who Learns Latin From The West Winggets frustrated at her need to Google:

“Not that she could have known,” he hastened to add, nil nisi bonum. [87]

“You know, Russell, one of the damnable things about working in partnership is that one has to take the other person’s proprietary feelings into account — Russell proponit sed Holmes disponit.” [247]

One of the things I enjoyed about this title are the cameos that are dropped into their little world. For instance, Miss Ruskin compares Holmes to Ned Lawrence:

“I like your Mr Holmes. Very like Ned Lawrence, d’you know? Both of ’em positively quivering with passion, always under iron control, both stuffed full of ability and common sense and that backwards approach to a problem that marks a true genius, and at the same time this incongruous tendency to mystify, a compulsion to obfuscate and to conceal themselves behind an air of myth and mystery.” [25]

I love Ned Lawrence. Um, well, wait. I love Peter O’Toole, who played Ned Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. And holy shit, I just realized that it hasn’t been ‘a while’ since I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, thanks to my friend Sarah helpfully pointing out that we all started at Franklin Pierce College ten years ago this month. No, it’s been ten years since I watched Lawrence of Arabia, because I clearly remember borrowing the library’s two-VHS-set of Lawrence and watching it on my tiny TV over the minifridge. Well — I know what I’m watching when I finish this Vampire Diaries marathon.

She also mentions running into “an odd man named Tolkien” in Oxford, and Lord Peter Whimsey makes an appearance at a party, who is apparently a friend of Holmes. [At least, I read it was Lord Peter Whimsey — his full name is never stated, and the one Dorothy L. Sayers book I’ve read was Gaudy Night, and I hated it so much I never picked up another Sayers title.] There’s also a reference to the Department of Antiquities in the British Museum, which brings to mind that Obtainer of Rare Antiquities, Dr. Indiana Jones. And then, because it’s the British Museum, I imagine Rupert Giles working with Dr. Jones, and then I pour myself a drink beause clearly, I am losing my mind.

Inspector Lestrade has great respect for Holmes, and in this paragraph, he not only compliments Holmes, but also his contribution to forensics:

“I’m not a child anymore, Miss Russell, but I know how much Scotland Yard owes to Mr Holmes. Things he did that looked crazy thirty, forty years ago are now standard procedure with us. Some of the men laugh at him, make jokes about his pipe smoking and violin and all, but they’re laughing at all those stories Dr Watson wrote, and they don’t like to admit that their training in footprints and the laboratory’s analysis of bloodstains and tobacco ashes comes straight from the work of Sherlock Holmes. Even fingerprints — he was the first in the country to use them in a case.” [86]

It’s crazy for me to think of that, without Sherlock Holmes, there probably wouldn’t be any CSI, and there definitely wouldn’t be any House.

My final thought is the last paragraph in the book, and it has nothing to do, really, with the mystery or anything in the book. I mean, it’s in the book and it references the story, but the message is more worldly and broad:

Death, and life, and the written word that binds them. The first letter to hit my desk brought with it an all-too-brief refluorescence of a friendship and led to the deaths of four people. The next letter gave life to a voice which the world had lost for more than eighteen hundred years. And a last letter, reaching out from the grave to assert the will of its writer and ensure the continuance of her life’s work, coincidentally condemned those who would have brought that work to an end. The hand of bone and sinew and flesh achieves its immortality in taking up a pen. The hand on a page wields a greater power than the fleshy hand ever could in life. [315]

Here’s what I’m noticing about the Russell series: I loved Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I loved it. I don’t have an analogy appropriate enough to accurately describe my love for that book. And I liked Monstrous Regiment of Women, too — though not to the extent of Beekeeper’s. And Letter of Mary was … good, comparitively? I hope this is not going to be a trend, that the rest of the titles will just be good, comparitively. I hope against hope that there is a title in this series somewhere along the line that will find me reading while in the drive-through line at Starbucks, I love it so much.

Grade for A Letter of Mary: 4 stars


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