Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #13
Published by Bantam on February 17th 2015
Genres: British mystery, Historical Mystery
Source: the publisher
Also in this series: Locked Rooms, The Murder of Mary Russell
Also by this author: Locked Rooms, The Murder of Mary Russell
For years now, readers of the Russell Memoirs have wondered about the tantalizing mentions of Japan. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes had spent three weeks there, between India (The Game) and San Francisco (Locked Rooms). The time has finally come, to tell that story.
It is 1925, and Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes arrive home to find…a stone. A stone with a name, which they last saw in the Tokyo garden of the future emperor of Japan. It is the first indication that the investigation they did for him in 1924 might not be as…complete as they had thought. In Japan there were spies, in Oxford there are dreams. In both places, there is a small, dark-haired woman, and danger.
Laurie King’s mystery series featuring Mary Russell and her partner and husband Sherlock Holmes has long been one of my favorites, so I always look forward to a new one with great anticipation. Dreaming Spies was nearly everything I hoped for. While not quite as strong as The Language of Bees and God of the Hive, it still has most of what I look for in a Russell/Holmes novel: an intellectually challenging puzzle, well-limned characters, and above all the intellect and wit of the two main characters.
I was particularly eager for this book because it promised to fill in a missing adventure – the month the pair spent in Japan on their way from India (The Game) to San Francisco (Locked Rooms), and the problem that brought them into contact with the emperor’s heir. At least half the book, perhaps more, is spent on this episode, beginning with the couple’s embarkation on the ship that will take them to Japan. More than a few chapters are spent shipboard, as various characters are introduced, Holmes and Russell learn a little about Japanese culture, and we begin to get hints of what the mystery might involve. Once Russell and Holmes arrive in Japan, I found their exploration of 1920s Japan fascinating – particularly their meetings with the young Prince Regent, Hirohito — especially with my knowledge of World War II. The Japanese characters with whom the protagonists associate most closely, Sato-san and his daughter Haruki-san, are well-drawn, and without giving anything away, I think I can say that they are worthy allies and cultural teachers for Russell and Holmes. Haruki-san is a wonderful character – don’t underestimate her! The four embark on a delicate attempt to… well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but eventually the problem is brought to a conclusion.
A year later, with their subsequent adventures and misadventures in San Francisco, Scotland and England, Portugal and Morocco behind them, Russell and Holmes return home to find that the Japanese problem has resurfaced, and they are asked to help once more. This time, the action occurs in and around Russell’s home ground: Oxford. And yet again, Laurie King surprised me with the twists and turns the story takes, and with the eventual solution.
One of the things that I particularly enjoy in fiction is the meeting or clash of cultures, especially when one or more characters are immersed in a culture not their own and must learn to function in it. So the section in which Holmes and Russell are given a crash course in Japanese language and culture, then figuratively thrown in at the deep end to make their way alone through the countryside to a prearranged meeting, was one of my favorite parts of the book. I also love how King begins each chapter with a haiku written by Mary (the sole narrator in this book). And I enjoyed learning about the haiku and life of Basho. The Oxford section is also strong; it’s the first we’ve seen Russell spending much time in Oxford since the earliest books, and it’s interesting to see the difference from her years as an undergraduate. Finally, there’s the lovely touch of the title. There are of course spies and dreams and even dreaming spies in the book – but the title is also a play on words, a reference to the poet Matthew Arnold’s “dreaming spires” (i.e., Oxford).
Dreaming Spies could perhaps stand on its own, but it will be much richer if you’ve read the rest of the series. For instance, Mary begins experiencing dreams – nightmares – on the voyage to Japan that will be understandable only if you’ve read Locked Rooms, though they’re not important to the case in Dreaming Spies. And there are references to other adventures, and to Mary’s relationship with her brother-in-law Mycroft, that make more sense if you’ve read the previous books. Most of all, the relationship between Mary and Holmes will be harder for a first-time reader to understand without the background of the previous books. (Besides, I can’t miss an opportunity to recommend The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the brilliant debut novel in this original and delightful series.) If you’re already a fan, however, Dreaming Spies is a worthy entry in the series, and one you’ll be happy you read.
CHALLENGES: COYER eligibility: Free (ARC). PopSugar challenge: a book set in another country. Cruisin’ Thru the Cozies.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Winter 2014-2015
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2015
- PopSugar 2015 Reading challenge