Monday, May 09, 2005

You Lose

The Game, by Laurie R. King, Read by Jenny Sterlin, Recorded Books, LLC, 2004

I’m generally leery of books that take on or reinterpret beloved classics like Sherlock Holmes merely because not many are capable of doing it with any grace or success. The creator of such a character is by far the best person for the telling of those tales, and often the third party authors just don’t get it. They lack a certain quality and the stories just don’t ring true. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake perspective.

And so it was with a double suspicion that I approached Laurie R. King’s The Game. Firstly, it trod upon the hallowed ground of Sherlock Holmes (a character I’ve actually toyed with myself fictionally, and one we’ve also seen reviewed herein). Having achieved icon status, Holmes is not the kind of thing I can erect a fence around no matter how much I may wish to. In the future, though, I may simply refuse to watch otherwise talented writers crash their little ships upon the shores of this giant.

The second reason is a bit shameful: I felt a twinge of resentment that a woman was treading upon the previously sacrosanct male duo, going so far as to even replace one of them. I felt a chauvinist protectiveness for the character and that universe and feared, in my little literary He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, that a girl would just sissify the whole works. I needn’t have worried about that. Before disc one was over, I found myself grinning, at King’s Mary Russell, a virago of no small mean.

But this enchantment didn’t last. What appears as the seventh Russell-Holmes mystery is in fact a lengthy travelogue-slash-history of Britain’s Indian Empire, filled with wearying digressions. Expecting mystery, you listen for every little clue, hoping to catch something, hoping to find the one grain of rice amidst all the lentils. Hoping in vain. A book featuring Sherlock Holmes with no real mystery, no tricks, no red herrings, no surprise revelations of facts at the end doesn’t seem like a book with much point in having Sherlock Holmes in it at all. If King wanted to write about a gripping mystery-solving heroine from the Victorian era, she needn’t have dragged Holmes into it. Others have. In fact, before the book is even halfway into it, Holmes and Russell split apart to pursue separate investigative threads. Then shortly after he’s reintroduced to the story, he is again disappeared. I know it’s Russell’s story that interests King in her neo-feminist approach, but again it begs the question why she must sully Holmes with this.

As The Game progresses, Holmes demonstrates very little skill save at prestidigitation. This is alone condemnatory of the book. A character widely known for his ratiocination, his flawless powers of observation, and his keen synthesis of disparate-seeming facts is here reduced to making torches flare on command and pulling coins from behind children’s ears. Then when he does comment on the available “evidence,” his conclusions are of a weak and un-Holmesian nature. He and Russell engage in hypothesizing about Maharaja Jumalpandra, and come up with the belief that his trip to Moscow and his stockpiling of armory make him a budding “Lenin,” the sort of inexact conclusion that insults the character of Holmes. Yes, I suppose certain ridiculous people might suspect that the hereditary ruler of a province of India, a spoiled man of wealth and leisure, strategizing with the communists in order to break England’s hold on his country, could be reasonably considered parallel to the founder of a socialist state. There’s no reason, of course, to muck up Holmes with that kind of imprecise cogitation.

Drafted for the job of tracking down a lost British spy by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, who claims to be too ill to undertake the work, Mary and Holmes set sail for India, then trek across the subcontinent on their way to a mountainous area near Tibet. They make friends with Tom Goodheart — a rich young American who espouses communism — and his sister who later play such a large role in the novel’s unfolding and climax. In older novels, it is a bit charming when people meet on journeys and become ocean liner companions, then stunningly bump into each other again as the mystery unfolds. Part of what amuses us about it is its unlikelihood, but it also stands in for a sort of allegory on the insular nature of Britons abroad. In more modern novels, even ones taking place in the time frame when such occurrences would be fictionally acceptable, such liberties with our credulity shouldn’t be taken. They are not charmingly allusory, but play a bit flat nowadays. That Goodheart and his sister should take the same ship to India and be headed for the exact same place as Holmes and Russell and that they should all arrive at the same time in Khanpur is laying it on thick.

To her credit, King’s book is devilishly well researched and her descriptive passages to and through India are a treat. If you can put out of your head the idea that this is supposed to be a tautly thrilling mystery featuring the best known detective in fiction and the woman compelling enough to cure his bachelor ways, then there are some interesting glimpses into Indian history, cuisine, and culture. And that’s just the problem. It’s as if King was torn between writing too very different books and just felt she had to put them together. The India portions are very alive and fascinating; the Holmes-Russell plot is just tacked on to it at times. The climax of the novel is the most unlikely of all, owing more to Errol Flynn than Conan Doyle.

There was, at least, this one miniscule snippet of humor in the book. The spy in question that Holmes and Russell are trying to find is Kimball O'Hara, the titular Kim of Rudyard Kipling’s book. “He’s real then?” Mary asks her husband. Dryly, he replies, “As real as I am.” Alas, if only the rest of the book contained as much quietly sardonic humor as that. The Holmes of King’s book shows too little of this kind of wit, instead being a stuffily reasonable man all the way through.

But the biggest flaw in the book is Russell herself. While certainly the woman who caused to bloom the arid heart of Sherlock Holmes would have to excel, Russell is more than just a bit too perfect. In her mid-thirties, she is an expert knife-thrower, a crack shot, an excellent rider, and she quickly picks up Holmes’ best magic tricks, all while learning Hindi in a couple weeks while riding in a cart cross India dressed like a man (much like how she explains she learned Arabic the same way). It’s a tall order no matter how you slice it. This is kind of a weakness. Rather than have the character struggle to escape or to run up against a brick wall she can’t surpass, King simply gives Russell nearly magical powers, a rapidly ascended learning curve that functions like a deus ex machina. When she goes on her very first wild pig hunt, Russell manages to be the first to wound the pig, though perhaps King thought it might strain our credulity to have her kill it in her first go. Oh no. She slays the wounded beast following lunch after the servants track it down.

Having a perfect heroine and a perfect hero makes for somewhat dull reading, giving you to understand the underrated part Watson played in the Conan Doyle stories. He is our stand-in, wonderstruck by Holmes’ genius, asking the same question we ask, “How the deuce?” While Russell is a mildly interesting character, a story with Holmes playing second fiddle is like The Greatest Story Ever Told being all about Joseph. With a character so perfect, you have to again ask yourself, why is she bothering to use the Holmes mythos as her starting point.

Narrator Jenny Sterlin has an all right voice, a strong and resilient British accent, trained while treading the boards, though when characterizing Holmes, her voice takes on such a tone I couldn’t help but imagine the face of Graham Chapman as an Upper Class Twit of the Year. Needless to say, that’s rather a distraction, rather not the image I suspect she was shooting for. However, as presented herein, there’s little reason to believe Holmes was much of anything special at all. Perhaps Stirlin’s portrayal is spot on for this Holmes.

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