Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Laurie R. King, GARMENT OF SHADOWS: A Morroccan Adventure

GARMENT OF SHADOWS is the 12th in the series that Laurie R. King offers featuring Sherlock Holmes and his late-in-life wife Mary Russell. The book is a good read as an adventure, with voices that alternate between Russell -- King's principal protagonist -- and Holmes. Evoking the postwar feel of 1924 (with a second war yet to materialize), it takes place entirely in the "exotic" atmosphere of Morocco. At the time, the mountains and deserts and bustling cities of the relatively small Islamic nation were being contested for possession as a colony by both France and Spain (which is just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco). In King's deft hands, the roles of tribal (native Moroccan; Berber and other) conflict are also painted into the picture, with leaders whose descent from the prophet Mohammed could be documented and recognized.

For series readers, the plot follows smoothly from Russell and Holmes's adventures in Palestine, and brings back some compelling characters, as well as the international intrigue that often brushes against the famous detective's life because of his brother Mycroft's service to England. And the opening premise of the book is intriguing: Russell has suffered a severe head injury and doesn't even know her name, let alone her role with the world's most famous detective. Her path toward reconnecting with Holmes is fraught with peril, and she doesn't have any idea why she's being threatened. But she knows, in the way that physical training remains in the body, how to protect herself with hurled missiles, deftly twisted knives, and quick lies.

I think the book is best read as a political adventure, and the abundance of recent novels featuring this time period (crime fiction from Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear; postwar recovery novels by Pat Barker) prepares many readers to enter the narrative with perspective and excitement. Descriptions of Moroccan locales abound, including charming ones of marketplaces as Russell attempts to find her way and her memories:
I came to a more lively quarter with open shops. Men sat in some, all wearing the same calf-length, rough-spun robes but occasionally layered with a heavier burnoose. They wore a variety of head-coverings: Some had loosely wrapped lengths of cloth, others wore snug turbans that revealed the crowns of their heads and a single thin plait, some had the rigid caps called tarboosh or fez. The women picking over displays of onions and greens were for the most part veiled, although some went freely bare-faced. They all haggled: over the cost of lemons, the measure of olives, the quality of tin cups. Colourful displays of garments and tools spilt onto the street.
But Russell-without-memories soon questions her own automatic actions of self-preservation: "First an acrobat, now a pick-pocket. Had I escaped from some traveling circus?"

I found the story enjoyable, and the complications and twists to be startling, with a denouement that takes argument over motivations through several layers of complexity and doubt. There's no question that this is a dandy adventure in a little-known country, and fun to read. Readers may also enjoy (as I do!) the many photos that King provides of Morocco within her blog and website, and especially her Pinterest board:

On the other hand, there are two aspects I expected that aren't really in this book. One is the Holmes persona and themes; it would be hard to find any moment in the story that could raise a spirited argument among today's Baker Street Irregulars, for instance, because there is almost nothing that connects to the Sherlock Holmes of A. Conan Doyle's stories. Holmes in fact pursues almost no detection, and what Russell does is mostly dependent on secondary characters who show her what she needs to know or discover. It seems a pity to have abandoned the intrigue of detection, for the sake of the political maneuverings that add up to the "garment of shadows" of the title.

The second gap is the more serious for me, and will probably keep the book off my "keep this to re-read" shelf: There is very little depth of character to Russell here, and her struggles that King has portrayed so well in other titles of the series -- around being a woman in a man's world, defending her academic training, being a Jewish woman in a period of blatant anti-Semitism, working out the issues of a May-November marriage -- have vanished. The story remains on the surface, a travelogue with risks and escapes, rarely with inner conflict and certainly without character growth.

I know Laurie R. King can build more compelling books than this one; I hope her next, which is also in this series, will dip more deeply and give us more of the worthwhile struggle that takes a story into our own layers of inner questions and blossoming strengths.

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