Russell, Holmes, sail high seas in Laurie King’s entertaining new mystery novel ‘Pirate King’
cclaimed Corralitos mystery writer Laurie R. King has shepherded her husband-and-wife detective team through some dark, sobering themes in her last couple of books—religious fanaticism, moral corruption, even human sacrifice. Her latest novel, “Pirate King,” takes another tack entirely. For this 11th outing in her popular mystery series, King places her intrepid heroine, Mary Russell, and her equally redoubtable husband, Sherlock Holmes, smack in the middle of a witty, lighthearted romp of an adventure involving the early days of the silent film industry, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and, of course, pirates.
King combines the usual scholarship, travelogue, feminism and skullduggery readers have come to expect from her Russell-Holmes mysteries with swashbuckling on the high seas and a healthy dose of absurdist hilarity—along with the ever-deepening affection and camaraderie between Russell and her much older, yet still vigorous spouse. The combination is just about irresistible. Fans can get a sneak preview when King reads from her new novel on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
“Pirate King” begins with Russell craving nothing more than a few weeks of leisure among the books and bees at the Sussex cottage she and Holmes share. Instead, she is invited by Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard to insinuate herself into the employment of a London motion picture company that appears to be leaving a trail of mayhem in its wake. Maddeningly encouraged by Holmes, and fearing the imminent arrival of Holmes’ alarming brother, Mycroft, for an extended visit, she reluctantly takes the assignment.
In the fall of 1924, post-World War I Britain is trying to catch up to its Hollywood counterparts in the fledgling motion picture industry. Diminutive, yet flamboyant Randolph Fflytte, realism-obsessed director of epics, is the golden boy expected to uphold England’s reputation in the field. But the mysterious disappearance of a production assistant and other odd events worry Fflytte’s highly placed, scandal-phobic financial backers. Russell goes to work for Fflytte’s assistant director, Geoffrey Hale, just as the crew sets off for picturesque Lisbon to shoot a film based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” (“Light opera and heavy humor,” groans the tin-eared Russell.)
Thus, the sensible, intellectual Mary Russell, scholar, linguist, and student of theology, finds herself in charge of 13 giggling, blonde teenage actresses, their romance novel-reading adult female chaperones, and a gaggle of costume and make-up girls. (Talk about a monstrous regiment of women.) “A fraternity of actual pirates could not have been more trouble,” she sighs. Little does she know.
Fflytte plans to make a movie about a film crew filming Penzance who runs afoul of a band of real pirates off the coast of Morocco. But life seems to be imitating art a bit too closely when a dubious group of armed Portuguese men (led by a scar-faced fellow called La Rocha and his sinister lieutenant) audition for the roles of the pirates. Fflytte is in heaven, of course, and buys a run-down sailing brig with the notion of filming on board over the high seas whilst sailing with crew, actresses, Russell and all straight into the ancient pirate stronghold of Salé on the Barbary Coast.
King weaves plenty of scholarship into the story, in brief, easily digestible snippets through observant narrator Russell: Portuguese history (Fflytte, she notes is a lot like Portugal, “a small country with a robust sense of importance”), the minutiae of early wing-and-a-prayer filmmaking techniques, the disposition of canvas and rigging on a sailing ship and the sense of exhilaration when she takes the wind, the gorgeously tiled architecture and intoxicating tastes, sights and smells of Morocco. King makes entertaining use of Fernando Pessoa, a real-life Lisboan poet and gadabout of the era (Fflytte hires him as a translator) who lived and wrote under a variety of eccentric personas, which he called “heteronyms.” And, of course, into this “lunatic asylum” of film crew and cast on location, she manages to insert a disguised Holmes into the dramatis personae.
A minor hiccup occurs in the narrative after Russell has been off with Hale and the girls away from the others in Lisbon for several days, and an anonymous voice fills us in on what happened in her absence. We’re not sure who is telling us this part of the tale, although it’s plausible that Russell is piecing this part of the story together after the fact for her memoir.
But overall it’s smooth sailing through this brisk comic adventure, from “author” Russell’s permission to regard “this one volume … as fiction” (“Had I not actually been there, I too would dismiss the tale as preposterous,” she admits in her Forward), to the witty curtain call. Crime? Who cares? This one is just for fun, and what a delightful pleasure cruise it is.
Laurie King will be reading and signing copies of “Pirate King” at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m.