King, Laurie R.: (08) Locked Rooms

Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King, follows on from The Game: after leaving India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have traveled to San Francisco (with an unplanned business stop in Japan, the tale of which does not appear in this volume). Russell left San Francisco as a teenager, some months after the car accident that killed the rest of her family, and now returns for the first time to deal with certain matters of family business. Her trip there has been anything but restful: since leaving India, Russell has had a recurring trio of dreams: violently flying objects; a faceless man who says “Don’t be afraid, little girl”; and a set of locked rooms that her companions pass by, but that she knows of and has the key to.

This is the first of the series that’s not solely in Russell’s first-person point of view. The “Editor’s Preface” claims that King, as recipient of Mary Russell’s memoirs, found two sets of papers about this visit to San Francisco:

One document was handwritten in Miss Russell’s distinctive script; the other was a typewritten, third-person narrative following the actions of her partner/husband. . . . I venture to say that she put together those [typewritten] chapters . . . based on at least two separate accounts, and found that typing them instead of using her customary handwriting provided her a necessary psychological distance from the tale, as did the shift from the personal voice to one of an objective narrator.

I have two problems with this framework. First, I like my framing devices to be thoroughly worked out, and the in-text explanation doesn’t quite work for me. The first book in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, was clearly written well after the events that it described. In this book, the third-person material was also written after the fact; it had to be, since no one person had all of its information while the events were happening. However, if the first-person material were written well after the fact, I don’t think there would have been a psychological need for Russell to use the third-person; at a remove, she ought not have been an unreliable narrator any more. Yet somehow I can’t see Russell keeping a diary, either, or doing case reports immediately after a case is closed.

My second problem is more concrete and less idiosyncratic: the third-person omniscient sections are largely told through Holmes’ eyes, but they head-hop disconcertingly between characters on several occasions, and at least once on the same page. These sections also have a somewhat distancing quality, which I suspect was deliberate, as a contrast to Russell’s sections; however, the result is slightly peculiar, especially combined with the head-hopping and the frequent repetition involved in telling the same time periods from different points of view. (As a purely practical matter, there have been other books in which Russell and Holmes have been separated for some time while working on cases; it might have been more difficult to manage here, and much of the Dashiell Hammett sections probably would have had to be dropped, but I don’t know that either of these are insurmountable.)

The book itself is a return to the investigative after The Game‘s adventures and derring-do. It’s not a particularly difficult investigation, but that’s not really the point; it’s Russell’s psychological journey that’s the proper focus of the book, and that is dealt with in a satisfying manner. The bits of Holmes’ perspective we get are an interesting bonus, and do not live down to my knee-jerk fears at the prospect.

All in all, this book was somewhat of a mixed bag for me. I am more distracted over questions of narrative framework than many people would be, I think, but those questions kept me from fully enjoying the story told within that framework.


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  1. I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed Russell’s psychological journey of discovery here, including the dreams and their interpretations.

    I’ll even admit to a guilty pleasure in the shameless co-opting of Dashiell Hammett.

    After that, though, the book wasn’t very satisfying.

    I agree with you about the sections labelled “Holmes” (though, as you note, they weren’t Holmes POV in anything like the way the Russell sections are Russell POV). The inconsistency of that voice was bad enough, but it also felt like the author couldn’t decide whether the material was supposed to be first-person, enhanced first, or tight 3rd, or what. The result was a hodgepodge.

    SPOILERS ahead.

    I was even more troubled by the flimsiness of the mystery itself. It was psychologically necessary for Russell’s family to have been murdered, but I really didn’t feel like the circumstances that were eventually revealed were sufficient foundation for that weighty a set of acts. Half a dozen murders, to prevent possibly someday being accused of looting?

    And then the final tracking and capture, surely anticlimactic after all of that effort spent establishing how clever and competent the woman was?

    After Justice Hall, these last two have been quite disappointing to me. I begin to fear that JH was the exception, rather than the new rule.

  2. David: I believe there was a matter of manslaughter at the least, as well, but yes, the investigative end of the book was certainly not its strong point.

  3. Oh, I know that the criminal was guilty of worse than looting, but I don’t see what he was afraid of from Russell. Why the rush to recover the stash? Shooting Russell in the street would be far more dangerous than simply letting things lie, wouldn’t it? Similarly, there was far more danger of being caught murdering the psychiatrist than there was danger that the psychiatrist might someday hypnotize the little girl to remember something dangerous. Indeed, nothing Russell could have remembered would have been dangerous by itself.

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