Sunday, February 24, 2008

TOUCHSTONE: Laurie R. King Hunts the Heart

January's delight was the release of Laurie King's new stand-alone mystery, TOUCHSTONE. For me, February's pleasure was carving out time to read it: all 548 pages.

King has written three earlier stand-alone novels, but she is best known for her two powerful series: five crime novels featuring Kate Martinelli, solid police procedurals with a dash of horror, set in California; and eight Mary Russell mysteries, folded neatly into the genre of Sherlock Holmes additions. Clearly there's plenty of research behind each of those, including mining the rich vein of the Baker Street Irregulars and the mystique of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother. The Mary Russell books also tangle with British politics, as King's version of Mycroft is as a friend to royalty.

But for TOUCHSTONE, Laurie King must have practically moved to the English countryside in her mind -- the English countryside in the fragile years after World War I, then simply "the War." The plot opens in 1921 and reaches its intense climax in 1926, amid murder, mayhem, and terrorist bombing.

And King is a master at the neat, fast-moving, impeccable plot. More important, she tastes the sorrows, losses, and hungers of the human heart.

Harris Stuyvesant works for John Edgar Hoover in the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation. Leaving behind his notoriously difficult boss, and the swinging society of Prohibition in the States, he's in England looking for a bomber: one who's made three trips already across the ocean, sowing havoc in America's class war of labor versus industrialists. An incidental casualty of the English bomber's work is Harris's brother Tim -- and for of Harris's raw soul, battered by his service in France during the War and then the loss of his fiancée, to a bomb blast on the home front, the loss of his brother's capacity for life demands action. Harris will find and catch that bomber. In his thoughts, he calls the man The Bastard, and he already knows his real name. He just has to prove the connection.

If you're a Laurie King fan, you're already saying: Whoa! Where's the strong woman protagonist? So ... let go of expectations. King's creation in Stuyvesant is instead the man of a feminist's dreams: strong, good-humored (when not chasing killers), skilled with cars, cultured, quick to pick up on social cues -- and a sucker for anyone who bears their soul's wounds with courage. That's how he finds himself bonding to the fragile, shell-shocked Captain Grey, a tender-hearted hermit whose sense of other people and their truths and tensions has driving him half mad.

Through Harris's eyes, we encounter the elegant and honorable remains of a Great Family of the realm, along with their beautifully crafted country house. From the local pub to the intricacies of life around devoted family servants to the sweetness of the bluebell wood -- and of Captain Grey's sister -- Harris is falling for an England that's as wounded as he is. The isolated family home where much of the action takes place is part of the allure, and Harris shows us its magic, from galleries of remarkable paintings, to the Great Hall, to the testy caution of the Duke and Duchess, his hosts.

I like especially the descriptions that King places in her "country house," awash in light and history. She walks Harris into the guest room that's decorated in images of trees:

"I'm going to feel like I'm sleeping in a tree-house," he told Grey, and was surprised tohear the pleasure in his voice -- this was like some childhood hideaway, and it appealed to a boyish urge he'd have thought well buried. He was smiling as he studied the room, which fortunately was papered not in leaves, but an off-white and light green stripe. The south window showed the long view down the valley, the one on the left overlooked the house and the shady garden they had come through.

The complexity of the characters and their emotional awareness make this mystery about as distant from a formal Agatha Christie country house murder as possible. In American fiction of this century, being wounded at the heart is usually a guarantee that a character will make need-based, immature choices, and descend through a plot of noir and despair. So it's refreshing to be able to identify with characters who instead work hard at making wise decisions, and who balance loyalty and hope with some skill. Although there's darkness here, including political dirt, what Harris and Captain Grey provide is enough gleaming courage to face the added losses ahead.

Oh yes, for those who like to look ahead: Laurie King is indeed working on another Mary Russell mystery. After all that research in the British Isles, I can imagine the tale flowing more convincingly than ever. Check out her pleasantly conversational news at

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