Everything Laurie R. King writes is first-class, from her modern, totally feminist and often surprisingly touching Kate Martinelli mysteries to her Mary Russell thrillers, which manage to carry on with (and improve upon) Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes and give the Great Detective a new life. King’s new novel, Touchstone, is one of the best books of any kind published in 2007 -- a terrific combination and culmination of her work so far.
Nobody knows better than King how to capture our attention. “Eight days after stepping off the Spirit of New Orleans from New York, Harris Stuyvesant nearly killed a man. The fact of the near-homicide did not surprise him; that it had taken him eight days to get there, considering the circumstances, was downright astonishing,” she writes as she introduces us here to one of her main characters, a tough, shrewd agent with J. Edgar Hoover’s new American Bureau of Investigation. It’s 1926, many years before Hoover changed the agency’s name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and started wearing women’s clothes in private.
Stuyvesant, a veteran of World War I’s worst trenches, is in London where the general strike started by coal miners has threatened to spread (it’s at one of the strikers’ street rallies where he seriously slugs a rabble rouser, before a bobbie breaks up their fight). Stuyvesant is hot on the trail of an anarchist bomber named Richard Bunsen, who has already eluded him, after causing serious damage to people he loves in America.
Bunsen is a worthy and frightening adversary, a deadly mixture of charisma and fervently misguided love for the working class. But this book’s other villain -- a power-mad military intelligence officer named Aldous Carstairs (“What kind of pansy handle is that?” Stuyvesant wonders when he first hears about him) -- is truly scary. As King writes:
The man behind the desk was in his early forties, slightly older than Harris Stuyvesant, and smooth: dark, oiled hair, the sheen of manicured fingernails, a perfectly knotted silk tie, and nary a wrinkle on his spotless shirt. A visitor’s gaze might have slid right off him had they not caught on his striking eyes and unlikely mouth.
The eyes were an unrelieved black, with irises so dark they looked like vastly dilated pupils. They reminded Stuyvesant of a wealthy Parisian courtesan he’d known once who attributed her success to belladonna, used to simulate wide-eyed fascination in the gaze she turned upon her clientele …
Personally, her eyes had made Stuyvesant uneasy, because they’d robbed him of that subtle and incontrovertible flare of true interest. This man’s eyes were the same; they looked like the doorway to an unlit and windowless room, a room from which anyone at all might be looking out.
Carstairs, for reasons very much his own, agrees to help the American in his search for Bunsen. He sends Harris to a remote, beautifully described part of Cornwall, down near Land’s End in the southeast corner of England. That’s where another important character -- Captain Bennett Grey, a man who came extremely close to death in the same trenches where Stuyvesant suffered -- is hiding out, drinking to keep his pain under control. Grey is the “touchstone” of King’s title (“a soft stone used to prove the purity of gold or silver”). He has, probably because of his severe injuries, extraordinary mental powers, including the ability to conjure up what he calls “mixed metaphors of perception. Dissonance might be a closer description,” he tells Harris. “I came across a fake Rembrandt portrait a while ago; standing in front of it was like being assaulted by the clamor of a dozen mismatched bells, out of tune and very disturbing.”
Carstairs has been observing and using Captain Grey for research purposes for five years, because he recognizes how powerful the latter’s gifts could be in the intelligence and political world. Grey hates Carstairs for the evil he senses in him, and the pain he seems to enjoy inflicting. But Grey also loves two very different women who are deeply involved in the bomber Bunsen search. Grey’s former lover, Laura Hurleigh, is the oldest child of a Mitford-like family who live in an astonishing house in Oxfordshire. It’s a Tudor manor which stands at the center of a collection of medieval landmark buildings, where a Hurleigh ancestor of the present Duke once fought off the chill by installing a hypocaust, an under-floor heating system originated by the Romans, and where guests stay in a building called The Barn, sleeping not in beds of straw but in ingeniously designed and executed theme rooms.
Stuyvesant (in his role, set up by Hoover and Henry Ford, as an executive of Ford Motors sent to England to stimulate sales) has come to the Hurleigh estate in order to meet Laura -- who is now Bunsen’s lover -- through her chief assistant, Sarah Grey, Bennett’s younger sister, a woman also deeply involved in Laura’s work of helping and healing the poor. Both are formidable and fascinating characters, whose sexuality works on Stuyvesant as he plots his revenge on Bunsen -- a retribution for which Carstairs has his own devious plans.
In an absolutely stunning climactic scene, there’s the threat of a bomb at the Hurleigh home: we’d be disappointed if there wasn’t. This time, the intended victims are the Duke of Hurleigh himself (a wonderfully shrewd old gent who collects porcelain dogs and drops malapropisms like crumbs on a shirtfront, but is the wisest man in the book), the prime minister and various other historical figures. King is such a master of narrative flow that despite this bomb’s inevitability, she makes us hold our collective breath until the end. Not to give away any secrets, but can’t we (please!) look forward to another Harris Stuyvesant adventure? And perhaps he might make a visit to Cornwall to check on Bennett Grey? | December 2007
Dick Adler, the former crime-fiction reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and author of The Knowledgeable Blogger.