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Laurie R. King
Locked Rooms
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Bantam / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-553-80197-X
Publication Date: 06-21-2005
400 Pages; $24
Date Reviewed: 06-19-05

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

Even the title is iconic, evocative. 'Locked Rooms' by Laurie R. King finds this author at the absolute top of 'The Game'. In this case, however, the game is not espionage, but rather the writing of top-notch mystery novels. The best writers of genre fiction regularly write novels that although they conform to the elements of a chosen genre, mange to be so enjoyable, so perfectly realized that they easily step outside any boundaries the author may have initially chosen. From the outside, it's easy to think that the locked rooms of the title are cages meant to contain this particular novel. After all, King has given herself a rather narrow focus. This is her eighth Mary Russell novel, and Mary is finally arriving to her familial home to settle her estate in the company of husband Sherlock Holmes. They haven’t even managed to return home from their previous adventure. The trip to San Francisco is supposed to be a minor stop on the way home. It proves to be a major novel for Russell and King, a dense, historical mystery that is compelling and simply lots of fun to read.

Even as she approaches her home, Mary Russell finds that her sleep is interrupted by dreams. Soon, she finds that she's losing more than sleep. She's putting herself in needlessly dangerous situations and experiencing blackouts. But before she can become an unreliable narrator, Sherlock Holmes and Laurie R. King come to her rescue, taking over the storytelling chores to turn this into a most unusual Mary Russell novel.

With seven first-person Mary Russell novels behind her, King experiments by writing large portions of this narrative in the third person. It's a gamble that pays off handsomely, giving this novel more range and more opportunities. The shifting points of view allow King to offer more detailed and varied characterizations, not only of Holmes and Russell, but of the rest of the cast as well. Russell, who has always functioned at a Holmesian level, now finds herself unable to adequately deal with the challenges that surround her. For the first time, we see her more as a vulnerable woman than an ever-capable partner to Holmes. Not too vulnerable though; she still knows how to handle a gun, and even in her weakest moments, she's a formidable ally -- or antagonist.

Holmes also acquires more than three dimensions. King's third person narration is the perfect approach here. Holmes remains a bit remote, yet paradoxically, we get closer to him than ever. As with Russell, Holmes seems humanized by King's approach, though not so much so that he becomes anything other than Holmes. These portions of the narrative are a real treat, and readers can't help but feel privileged to finally get a glimpse into the mind of the man who is Russell's equal. It's a testament to King's work in the past novels that readers feel this way.

I would be remiss not to mention the rest of the cast of characters here. Tom Long, the son of Russell's parents' servants, is the kind of character that any on-going mystery series requires to thrive. Within the context of this novel, he's as fully realized as Holmes and Russell, and readers will look forward to his scenes. And he's matched by King's real coup here, the inclusion of Dashiell Hammet as a character. King has more fun and provides more fun than readers have any right to expect with Hammet. And she faces without fear the conundrum of having fictional characters meet historical characters and comment on their own fictional existence.

The other character to star in this novel is the city of San Francisco. King's re-creation of the city after the quake of 1906 is wonderfully nuanced, filled with telling details and paints a vivid picture. The layers of history covered are fascinating and offered with the kind of conviction that lifts the novel beyond any genre. This is a meticulously researched, perfectly balanced mix of action, history and character development.

With 'Locked Rooms' Laurie R. King takes her Mary Russell novels to a new level. Yes, they’ve always been enjoyable and thoroughly fun. This one is no exception. It's a joy to read from start to finish. But there's an almost ineffable something more here besides. It's as if in unlocking the rooms within Russell, King has unlocked something within her own writing. This novel is full to the brim with people and the stuff of life, and a hoot besides. King dives deep when it's called for and she ratchets back when she needs to. There's a balance here that's brave without bravado. There's genuine love and laughter. You'll be sorry to put down the book, and hope that there are more rooms in Mary Russell's life left for King to unlock.

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