Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"Island of the Mad" by Laurie R. King

You know I've been a fan of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series for many years now.  I've written a lot of posts about them.  They're my favorite non-canonical Holmes stories, and I love some of them dearly.

Just not this one.

Actually, I liked much of the story.  It was fascinating, mysterious, and held some nice twists.  Russell's university friend Veronica's aunt has been in and out of mental institutions for the last decade or so, and then she suddenly disappears, so Veronica asks Russell to look for her aunt.  Russell and Holmes follow her trail to Venice, which has just come under the rule of Mussolini and the fascists, and all the historical details were awesome.  They end up rubbing elbows with people like Cole Porter, so that was fun.

But running all through the story is a vein of homosexuality, which is not surprising given that King's modern-day mystery series stars a gay policewoman and she's dealt with the topic in other books too.  And Cole Porter actually was gay, so it all tied together.  What bothered me was Russell and Holmes' very modern reactions to finding out various people involved in the case were, as the parlance of the day put it, lavender.  They were practically ho-hum, and while many people in the 21st century would react that way, it felt pretty weird for the time and place the book was set.  Yes, Russell and Holmes have always been unconventional characters, but this began to feel like the foisting of an author's agenda into her characters' behavior and words that I just didn't appreciate or enjoy.  It was like if Holmes and Russell had suddenly started talking about reducing emissions and saving the ozone layer and needing to find sustainable fuel -- it just didn't seem to fit.

So anyway, if you like the series, you'll still have fun hanging out with Holmes and Russell here.  But this won't be a favorite of mine.  A couple years ago, I made a list of how I rank the books in this series, from favorite to least-favorite, and I feel like revising the list to include the newer books, so here's how I rank them now:

1. The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book 1)
2. The Game (book 7)
3. The Murder of Mary Russell (book 14)
4. O Jerusalem (book 5)
5. Garment of Shadows (book 12)
6. Pirate King (book 11)
7. Locked Rooms (book 8)
8. Dreaming Spies (book 13)
9. Justice Hall (book 6)
10. The God of the Hive (book 10)
11. The Language of Bees (book 9)
12. The Moor (book 4)
13. Island of the Mad (book 15)
14. A Monstrous Regiment of Women (book 2)
15. A Letter of Mary (book 3)

Particularly Good Bits:

"I have never found 'luck' a dependable companion," Holmes noted calmly, and tucked into his soup (p. 237).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: a hard PG-13 or soft R for a lot of veiled discussions of sexual proclivities, the behavior of mentally disturbed people, bad language, and some perilous situations.


  1. I loved some of the books in the series but feel some are much weaker. I have a lot of thoughts about modern sensibilities being imposed upon fictional characters from past generations. Also, I have a lot of feelings about modern sensibilities being expected from authors of the past. I feel a blog post coming on.

    1. Jennifer, oooh, that would be a good blog post. Because yeah, it's really ridiculous to expect people a hundred years ago to have the same sensibilities and mores as we do today.

      And the series as a whole... I feel like it's always fun, but some of them definitely fail to hit the same heights as the others.

  2. It's perhaps not a foisting of her agenda on the character's behavior but an inability to really imagine or credibly write how people would've reacted back then. And of course we can't have the protagonists/heroes expressing prejudices that make us uncomfortable today. We can only have them expressing prejudices that we currently approve of.

    To combat this kind of chronological snobbery is why C.S. Lewis recommended reading old books.

    1. George, I'm pretty sure it's a personal agenda thing in this case, but I suppose she may be so convinced of certain modern beliefs being "right" that she can't conceive of people thinking otherwise.

      Old books are still my favorites.

  3. I've never heard of this series, but I love anything Sherlock Holmes inspired. I don't like when authors try to modernize historically based stories. I read one where a girl in the eighteenth century was complaining about her skirts and running around in pants, which didn't seem to fit with the time period.
    It really pulls you out of the story.

    1. Skye, the series as a whole is a lot of fun :-)

      I think that some girls in the 18th century probably did chafe at the need for skirts. Certainly we have plenty of historical records of women dressing in men's clothes for particular reasons, like because they were pirates or spies, or because they wanted to join the army and weren't allowed to. However, they were definitely exceptional, and an ordinary, everyday girl running around in pants would have created a lot of hubbub, I'm sure.


What do you think?

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)