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King, Laurie R - 'Pirate King'
Paperback: 384 pages (June 2012) Publisher: Allison & Busby ISBN: 0749040688

"Gilbert and Sullivan?" I exclaimed. "Pirates as in Penzance? Light opera and heavy humour? No. Absolutely not. Whatever Inspector Lestrade has in mind, I refuse."

Mary Russell, wife and partner of Sherlock Holmes, is horrified at a request for her help in going undercover to investigate Fflytte Films for Inspector Lestrade. However she is even more horrified that Sherlock has invited his brother Mycroft to stay with them whilst his flat is undergoing building work. Between the devil Mycroft and the deep blue piratical sea, Mary chooses the Pirates. Fflytte Films have had the recent unfortunate habit of making pictures that herald mini crime waves: "Small Arms", "Rum Runner" and "Coke Express" have respectively coincided with illegal gun sales, the arrest of a prominent alcohol-smuggler, and drugs parties. Now Lestrade wants Mary to find out if there is a connection between the film company and those crimes. Fflytte Films' latest project heralds a return to their previous successful genre of swashbuckling sea adventure. The film is loosely based on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates Of Penzance" and it will be shot in Lisbon and Morocco. A few days later sees Mary taking up the position of producer's assistant for the company, a post suddenly made available after the mysterious disappearance of her predecessor. On a grey November morning in 1924 Mary watches from her steamer deck as it approaches the port of Lisbon. She polishes the salt spray from her glasses and goes below to gather the film's cast and crew for disembarkation. What follows will see Mary setting sail into uncharted waters both as a production assistant in the world of silent film and as an investigator.

Laurie R King's "Mary Russell" series begins with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, set in Sussex in the spring of 1915 when the Anglo-American teenaged Mary, traumatised by a tragic accident, meets the semi-retired Sherlock Holmes for the first time. Over the course of the series the pair become friends, teacher and pupil, and eventually partners in crime investigation and in marriage. PIRATE KING, eleventh title in the series, centres on Mary's undercover work in a film company which is making a film about "a film company making a film" which is the "Pirates of Penzance". In fact the setting of PIRATE KING sounds like one of Gilbert & Sullivan's own trademark patter songs. But the tongue-twister doesn't stop there. The book is full of layers, devices, disguises and humour and is awash with characters masquerading as someone else not least because so many of them are in fact "actors". This has the potential to be confusing but King handles it well. Although there is a welter of characters, many are colourful and clearly evoked: the tiny, obsessed film director, the winsome actresses, the scar-faced "pirate chief", the shady translator and, last but not least, Rosie the anarchist parrot - fluttering into the rigging with cries of "All actions are propaganda". Above all there is Mary Russell herself - capable, resourceful, brave and intelligent - and her partner, the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes. King's settings are evocatively and accurately written. In an interview King says, "I'm what my daughter calls 'a recovering academic'... One of the fun parts of writing my kind of fiction is that you do the background research by reading and looking stuff up. Then you go out and find someone who really does it..." This research-based approach is very clear when you get to Mary's learning tour of the ship's rigging, almost a detailed account too far. But with a lighter touch elsewhere King's descriptions give authenticity and flavour to the book. And don't forget suspense and mystery. There is plenty of that as well. King is an experienced and award-winning crime writer to be reckoned with. Having written the "Kate Martinelli" police detective series set in the contemporary San Francisco of the late 1990s, of which I was already a great fan, there are also several stand-alone books as well as the "Mary Russell" books. If you welcome King's concept of Mary Russell as Holmes' companion and an investigator in her own right, PIRATE KING is a brilliantly layered, and witty book. It is one to enjoy, but keep your wits about you.

Lynn Harvey, England
September 2012

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 30/09/2012 10:08