The Game

by Laurie R. King

Published by Bantam Books

384 pages, 2004


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It's All the Raj

Reviewed by Yvette Banek

 

Laurie R. King's audacity never fails to amaze. Who'd have thought it would take a 20th-century woman to flesh out the crusty, taciturn, yet oh-so-well beloved figure of Sherlock Holmes, himself essentially a 19th-century man? Of course, I am referring here not only to the talented King but also to her most imaginative creation, Mary Russell, the liberated, half-American Jewish woman who, over the course of several evocative books so far (beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, 1994), has breathed freshness and new life into Holmes' legendary persona.

Born at the turn of the last century, and only a precocious 15 years old on the occasion of her fateful first meeting with the Great Detective (who was then 54 and languishing in semi-retirement, keeping bees on England's Sussex Downs), Mary Russell has gone on to win not just Holmes' admiration, but his well-guarded old heart as well. (Much to the shock of Sherlockian purists, King has the pair already wed at the beginning of 1996's A Letter of Mary.) Although King never loses sight of the eccentric consulting sleuth's rapacious intellect and fabled orneriness -- two of the qualities that every Holmes fan has come to expect -- she has lifted Arthur Conan Doyle's premier protagonist from the dusty pages of literary history and made him a flesh-and-blood figure.

In The Game, this series' seventh installment (after Justice Hall, 2002), the year 1924 has just begun and the reader is packed off in vintage style to India alongside Russell and Holmes, at the behest of the latter's ill elder brother, Mycroft, who holds membership in a shadowy government agency. The couple are on the trail of -- believe it or not -- Rudyard Kipling's own stellar creation. Responding to Mycroft's display of oilskin-bound possessions, evidently the property of a missing British spy, Russell asks her brother-in-law:

"This doesn't have anything to do with Kim, does it? The Kipling book?"

"You've read it?" Mycroft asked.

"Of course I've read it."

"Good, that saves some explaining. I believe this to be his amulet case."

"He's real, then? Kipling's boy?"

"As real as I am," said Sherlock Holmes. "And yes, this is his amulet. I recognize it."

"You know him?" I don't know why this revelation startled me as if he'd claimed to have met a hippogryph; heavens, half the world considered Holmes fictional. But startle me it did.

"I knew him, long ago. We spent the better part of a year in each other's company."

"When?"

He smiled to himself. "While I was dead."

Did I mention Laurie King's imaginative conceit? It's well apparent in this excerpt. "As real as I am," says Sherlock Holmes. If that doesn't bring a smile to your face, then perhaps this series is not for you.

During the ensuing sea and train excursion to exotic, British-dominated India, Mary Russell strikes up an acquaintance with the Goodheart family, a curious group of Americans who are also journeying to the subcontinent. Upon reaching their destination, Russell and Holmes say good-bye to the Goodhearts. They then proceed to darken their skins, assume the guise of Hindu magicians ("Baggy salwaar trousers of coarse white cotton, knee-length kameez and padded waistcoats over, floppy turbans wrapping our heads and woolen shawl around our shoulders. We would disappear into a crowd," Russell informs the reader), and set off in search of the enigmatic Kimball O'Hara, the grown-up version of that resourceful English orphan who gave his name to Kipling's 1901 novel, Kim. O'Hara, we're told, is a long-lost player in the "Great Game" of espionage who, it's feared, has turned against the Crown's cause.

Yet when this detective duo, together with their urchin guide, Bindra (whose real interests in this adventure will only eventually be revealed), unexpectedly cross paths once more with the Goodhearts, Russell is coaxed away from her secret mission, while Holmes -- much to his wife's chagrin -- continues trekking the dusty byways in search of the elusive and perhaps endangered O'Hara.

Reluctantly rid of her native garb, scrubbed clean and properly coifed and attired, Russell resumes her budding friendship with Sunny Goodheart, the rather silly but "good-hearted" girl who is traveling with her over-bearing, marriage-minded mother and stalwart brother, Thomas, an enigmatic young gent with decidedly Bolshevik leanings. (It is that suspicious taint of Bolshevism, at a time when post-revolutionary Russia is making aggressive noises on the northern frontiers of Afghanistan and India, that led Russell to alter her travel plans.) At Sunny's invitation, Russell is "convinced" to crash the Goodhearts' party and tag along with them on their visit to Thomas' friend Jumalpandra, aka "Jimmy," the maharajah of Khanpur.

Thus begins a junket that will take them partway by train, and finally via "aeroplane" to Khanpur city, a fairy-tale land of enchantment -- or so it seems on the surface:

As the mountains encircled Khanpur itself, so high, warm-red walls, built for military purpose, now gave shelter to a garden, several acres of closely planned and maintained lawn, flower, and tree. Its centre was an acre of lotus pond with playing fountain and water birds; a trio of tame gazelles in jeweled harnesses tip-toed across the close-trimmed lawn sloping up from the water; bright birds sang in the trees that rose half as high as the three-storey wall ...

Circling the runway, with Jimmy at their plane's controls, Russell makes note of some large warehouses, or "godowns," at the tarmac's north end. She muses: "For a maharajah's plaything, the air strip was a serious affair. For someone storing goods best kept out of the British eye, those 'godowns' were ideally placed."

Once returned to his native turf, Jimmy's previously charming façade develops an immediate crack. It seems the young maharajah is given to a vulgar fondness for flaunting his superiority and humiliating his guests. Something menacing is definitely lurking behind the smarmy smile on the face of this spoiled Indian aristocrat.

Russell's impression of her host isn't improved, either, by his inviting her to join him on an early-morning ride -- "If you don't mind blood sport." Since Holmes' spouse is the kind of woman who rarely refuses a challenge, she finds herself astride a horse the next day, accompanying the maharajah, Thomas Goodheart and a group of assorted males on a "pig sticking" expedition. What follows is a much too long foray into the wild Indian countryside, as beaters flush out the dangerous wild boar. As a "sport," pig sticking leaves a great deal to be desired. But author King, as always, is nothing if not thorough, and she spends an inordinate amount of time on this primitive pursuit, which is similar to bull fighting. She also uses her wonderful narrative powers to bring to life a heart-pounding moment in which Russell confronts a charging boar, armed only with a spear:

In an instant, my fear of embarrassing myself and letting down the women's side vanished completely, gulped up by a flood of pure mortal terror. The pig looked the size of a bear, with murderous little eyes over a cluster of curved razors; I half expected the thing to leap into the air and rip out my throat. Thank God the horse at least knew what it was doing. While my arm froze and the spear bobbled up and down like a broom-stick balanced across a clothes-line, the big bay gathered its muscles, paused for a moment -- only later did it occur to me that the horse was waiting for me to stick the thing, had I been either so inclined or so able -- and then vaulted hugely forward out of the boar's way. As we rose, the spear-head dipped to bounce ineffectually off the pig's rock-like shoulder, a tap that jarred my shoulder down to my boots.

I came within a hair of dropping my stick as the horse flew forward, tucking its feet miraculously clear of the searching tusks and coming back to earth at a dead run. It took just half a dozen strides and then, with absolutely no instruction from me, dug in its front hooves. Spear and topee flew over the horse's ears, nearly followed by rider as I clung hard to mane and saddle, losing one stirrup as the horse hauled itself around to face the boar again.

Brutally vivid, such passages demonstrate King's thrilling way with action sequences. She writes this type of thing better than almost anyone, and carries the reader right along, spellbound.

As The Game progresses, the maharajah's intentions become clearer and Russell's suspicions bear fruit. She and the Goodhearts have become, effectively, the prisoners of a man whose collecting proclivities give sinister new meaning to the word "zoo" -- a man whose dependent "guests" are coerced to languish, caught like ants in a honey trap. However, hope of escape soon presents itself. Russell and two other guests, under the watchful eye of guards, go shopping one day in the teeming city of Khanpur, only to spot a magician plying his trade. Russell exclaims:

I looked: dramatic black garments, shiny fat donkey, a magnificently painted and mirrored little wagon that had once pulled English children, a great eye now gracing its front.

Sherlock Holmes had arrived in Khanpur.

Here is another grandiose twist in King's tale, which the reader accepts readily. Just when you're wondering when Holmes is going to show up, he does. In dramatic fashion. Perfectly timed. Of course, one thinks, he must've trailed O'Hara here. And so he has.

The reuniting of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell weighs in the novel's favor. As this series has evolved over the last decade, one tends more and more to view these two magnetic characters as halves of a perfect whole, so intellectually symbiotic is the relationship King has fashioned for them. Not only has Conan Doyle's Great Detective found the one woman in a million with brilliance enough to match his own (sorry, Irene Adler), but Russell possesses a fearless nature to equal his. Even their age difference has been adroitly and convincingly dealt with. When, in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the blond-plaited Russell grasps the truth behind the elder Sherlock's early retirement, she tells him: "You are here to escape the disagreeable sensation of being surrounded by inferior minds, minds that can never understand because they are just not built that way." The reader knows that she is also speaking of herself, though she may not necessarily be aware of it. Can you wonder that Holmes was smitten?

The Game is a rousing adventure tale in which all is definitely not what it seems, and characters change roles and sides before our very eyes. Along the way, the conflict across India's northern frontier festers, the secrets of Khanpur are revealed, and the search for operative O'Hara takes an unexpected turn, leading to a wild, breathless finale. Save for the abrupt and bewildering disappearance from the narrative of an interesting secondary character late in the day, The Game has few significant flaws. It's another absorbing winner in this splendid series, which features the most intriguing husband-and-wife team in all of mystery fiction. | March 2004

 

Yvette Banek is a New Jersey artist-writer who reviews crime fiction for both January Magazine and Mystery Ink.