Monday, July 2, 2018

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review

A visit with Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell is one of my favorite ways to spend time. Since falling in love with this series with its first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie King has never failed to give me a tale that keeps that love burning. Two people of such spectacular problem-solving intelligence and consistently delightful wit as Russell and Holmes are rare and, thus, all the more special. In Island of the Mad, #15 in the series, I'm thrilled that Russell and Holmes are working together again, even though Holmes has a job he's taking care of for his brother Mycroft, too. The duo are such superb sleuths together, and their witty repartee always entertains me. And, as much as I love an English setting, the setting of Venice in this book completely captivated me with its unique beauty and history. 

Barely having had enough time to catch their breaths since The Murder of Mary Russell and the departure of the steadfast Mrs. Hudson, Mary is drawn into a search for a friend's aunt. A call from Mary's oldest friend Ronnie, Veronica Beaconsfield, about her missing aunt, Lady Vivian Beaconsfield, has Mary promising Ronnie to look into the disappearance. Lady Vivian, who is not much older than Mary and Ronnie, had been home to the Beaconsfield estate from her residence at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a London mental institution, for her brother Edward's birthday celebration when she was discovered missing after the party. Lady Vivian's nurse from Bedlam (the informal name for Bethlem) has also disappeared. With Ronnie tied to the care of her toddler, it's up to Mary to do the footwork and follow the clues, clues which lead to the colorful island paradise of Venice, Italy. Mary is excited about revisiting a place where she has ties involving her mother, a place of fond memories and mysterious geography. It being 1925, Mycroft Holmes and the British government are interested in the effect the new fascist government of Italy under Mussolini is having, so Holmes is the natural choice to investigate that interest while in Venice. 

Venice is the proverbial needle in the haystack location to find someone, even with excellent sources of gossip and information. There is the city of Venice; the Lido, where the rich and un-tethered Americans and other nationalities like to play in the sun and party all night; the islands of San Clemente and San Servolo, housing mentally ill women and men respectively; and Poveglia, an island associated with tragedies such as the plague and WWI. Add to the many hiding places, the hampered transportation means of navigating the canals and open waterways, and Venice becomes a tricky place for Mary to find her friend's aunt and nurse. Sherlock has his challenges, too, needing to infiltrate the scene where fascists may end up or be the topic of conversation. Of course, both of these capable sleuths are masters at playing a part, with the right costuming and props. Mary works her way into the Lido crowd, where American Elsa Maxwell holds court and proves helpful in Mary's plans. Sherlock takes on the role of a violinist and works his way into the good graces and musical performances of American Cole Porter. There is the unexpected danger of someone from England, who figures into both of the investigations and especially threatens Mary's. Venice proves a most useful quagmire in which to both find and lose people.

There is so much to enjoy in this latest Russell and Holmes, and Laurie King's taking our sleuthing couple to Venice provided many opportunities to bring in new, exciting characters who actually did live and play in Venice. The history of Venice, both past and at the present time of the book, 1925, was fascinating to me. The fascists black shirts and their beginning infiltration into the life of vibrant Venice was a voice hearkening from the past to the present. History teaches us if we care to pay attention. Just having finished one World War, Sherlock and Mycroft both agree that yet another one is on the horizon. And, on a lighter note, I found great satisfaction in King's witty dialogue for her characters, as always. Russell and Holmes are so in sync that Russell can merely feel Holmes' nod and move forward. A pair that at first might have seemed an unlikely one has once again demonstrated their perfect pairing indeed.