“There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.” – The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

May 31, 2010 at 1:12 pm (Book review, books)

The time is the 1930s. The Fisher abode in Paris is serving as a way station for two children. Henrietta is simply passing time between rail journeys. She is on her way to her grandmother’s home in the countryside. But for eleven-year-old Leopold, a momentous event awaits: he is to meet the mother from whom he was separated in infancy.

Henrietta and Leopold regard each other warily, performing a delicate pas de deux as they await developments. Supervising them, Naomi Fisher tries not to betray her agitation. To add to the  strangeness of the situation, the family matriarch lies upstairs in her bedroom, ill and possibly dying.

The House in Paris is divided into three sections: The Present, The Past, and once again, The Present. The first section comprises about a third of the novel and takes place almost exclusively inside the house. The next section is far more plot driven. In it, we learn the story of Leopold’s mother. By the time the action returned to the present, I felt a far greater empathy with the children. I hated to bid them farewell.

There is much beautiful, provocative writing in this novel. For example:

‘It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you are already beginning to store up the pains of going away. From what you see, there is to be no escape. Untrodden rocky canyons or virgin forests cannot be more entrapping than the inside of a house, which shows you what life is.

(Transcribing this passage just now, I am remembering a dream I had years ago of the house in which I lived as a small child. I was walking through to the back kitchen door, expecting to encounter the back yard with the swing set. Instead, I entered a lovely conservatory filled with flowers and evocative scents. Two elderly women smiled and greeted me. One of them said, “There you are, my dear!” What was I reading at the time? I can’t recall.)

In her thoughtful introduction,  A.S. Byatt mentions Bowen’s debt to Virginia Woolf and Henry James:

‘She writes, for all her elegance, with a harshness that is unusual and pleasing. There are moments of vision and metaphor, akin both to James and to Virginia Woolf, but recognizably Elizabeth Bowen‘s own.

Elizabeth Bowen 1899 - 1973

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I can’t stop reading and re-reading this poem…

May 30, 2010 at 1:41 pm (Anglophilia, books, Poetry)

Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy. 1844–1881


I made another garden, yea,
For my new Love:
I left the dead rose where it lay
And set the new above.
Why did my Summer not begin?
Why did my heart not haste?
My old Love came and walk’d therein,
And laid the garden waste.

She enter’d with her weary smile,
Just as of old;
She look’d around a little while
And shiver’d with the cold:
Her passing touch was death to all,
Her passing look a blight;
She made the white rose-petals fall,
And turn’d the red rose white.

Her pale robe clinging to the grass
Seem’d like a snake
That bit the grass and ground, alas!
And a sad trail did make.
She went up slowly to the gate,
And then, just as of yore,
She turn’d back at the last to wait
And say farewell once more.


I had never heard of this poet or this poem until I encountered them yesterday in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.

I think I will not give too much away if I say that these lines are read out at a funeral. It is an inappropriate  choice, to say the least. The effect it produces is shock, both to the listeners and to myself, the reader.

I had been listening to the audiobook, beautifully read by Bianca Amato. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs to the computer and found the text of this astonishing, profoundly disturbing poem.

More later on Audrey Niffenegger’s equally astonishing novel, after it has been discussed by the Literary Ladies. And I really am dying – perhaps I’d do better to say, eager – to talk about this book.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much concerned with London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, burial place of Karl Marx, among others.

The novel’s title caused me to revisit  ” The Tyger” by William Blake:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears :
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Audrey Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I have not read, but may do now.


A final word on Her Fearful Symmetry and “I Made Another Garden:” It is not so easy to banish the dead.


Audrey Niffenegger

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“It was a landscape of mists and distances, beneath a sky that was somehow washed, attenuated, softened.” – The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith

May 29, 2010 at 1:38 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

Ron and I have a favorite table at Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. It’s a small table for two in an alcove on the first floor. The window right next to it is stained glass; it depicts a fox with russet fur, a sinuous body and the trademark bushy tail. This creature always puts me in mind of the fox that frequents Isabel Dalhousie’s back garden in Edinburgh – she calls him Brother (or Br’er) Fox.

Yes I know – oft have I written of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. But each time yet another finely wrought gem in this series falls into my hands, I am moved to sing its praises anew.

In The Lost Art of Gratitude, we find ourselves once more in beautiful Edinburgh with Isabel, her musician lover Jamie, and their little son Charlie. These three people are enclosed within a tightly woven web of love. Here, Isabel, thinks with happy anticipation of the time when Charlie will begin music lessons:

‘She smiled at the thought of Charlie with his unformed lips and a violin. He would attempt to eat it if she gave him one now, but they could start when he was three, which would come soon enough. And then, after the violin, when he was old enough, ten or so, he could learn the Highland bagpipes, starting on a practice chanter before proceeding to a real set, ebony drones and all, to the full, primeval wail that sent shivers down the spine. He would wear the kilt–Macpherson tartan again–and play the pipes; oh, Charlie, dear little Charlie.

Alongside Isabel’s newly acquired domestic bliss, two plot lines unfold. One involves a wealthy investment banker named Minty Auchterlonie. Minty is harboring a secret that she fears will endanger her marriage. She entreats Isabel, whom she knows only slightly, to help extricate her from the quandary in which she finds herself. At the same time, Isabel is once more fending off assaults on her professional integrity from her nemesis, Professor Christopher Dove and his assistant nemesis, Professor Lettuce.

(Isabel has a great time with the latter’s name: “Poor Lettuce: his salad days were over.” “Professor Lettuce must have gone through his childhood being the butt of mockery from other  boys–fortunate boys not named after vegetables–simply because of his unusual name….”)

Isabel has a showdown with Lettuce over lunch (appropriately) that had me wanting to stand up and cheer!

As with all the Dalhousie novels, The Lost Art of Gratitude is suffused with a love of Scotland and Scottish culture. And, of course, Isabel cherishes a particularly strong affection for Edinburgh, a city she has known her entire life:

‘Everywhere in this city, everywhere Isabel went,  there were memories. As an eighteen-year-old, she had come to a poetry reading on this side of the square, in the School of Scottish Studies; it was given by a Gaelic poet, who read both his own language and English. Isabel had been unable to understand his Gaelic, but had followed it on a crib sheet thoughtfully provided by the organisers; it had sounded like the wind and waves breaking on the shore; the words of a language that suited its landscape.

At one point in the novel. something happens to Brother Fox that calls forth a compassionate response from both Jamie and Isabel, and from others as well. I found this entire novel to be compulsively readable, but this scene was especially riveting. It said more about the characters than any wordy description possibly could have done.

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Hamlet: “As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world’s scriptures.”*

May 25, 2010 at 1:52 am (Hamlet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

On Sunday May16, we “Folger friends” saw a new production of Hamlet. Someone asked me how many times I have seen this play. My answer: not sure, perhaps seven or eight. But I never miss a chance to see it again, because with every new production, I gain new insight. Hamlet is a bottomless well of profundity.

I am always thrilled to hear my favorite lines spoken once more:

“For this relief much thanks; for it is bitter cold and I am sick at heart.” What is the secret sorrow that so oppresses Francisco? And why should I care – He is a minor character; this is, I believe, his sole appearance in the play.

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Hamlet’s sarcastic  rejoinder to his friend Horatio.

‘And then it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons.’  Horatio describing the ghost as it hears the crowing of a rooster at dawn.

There is yet more concerning the significance of the crowing of the cock. Horatio goes on to say that he has heard tell that once this sound is heard at break of day, any ghost or spirit walking abroad must at once quit the land of the living and flee “To his confine” – wherever that may be; we are not told.

Another of the guards, Marcellus, confirms that the ghost vanished when the crowing of the cock was heard. He then launches into one of those tangential disquisitions that are, for me, one of the special joys of Shakespeare:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Well! what of that? Horatio’s brief response is both cautious and tantalizing:

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

Which part do you believe, Horatio? And which part do you doubt? I have long been intrigued by the singular lack of religious sensibility evinced by most of Shakespeare’s characters. Here is a notable exception. Another thing fascinates me about this exchange. Hamlet was written around the year 1600. The Middle Ages, with their admixture of religious fervor and superstitious terrors, had been left behind. But powerful remnants still trouble the minds of those who have come of age in supposedly more enlightened times. And of course, these men have just seen an amazing apparition and are trying to make some kind of sense of the experience.

Horatio follows his terse response to Marcellus, quoted above, with two of the most ravishing lines of poetry imaginable:

But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:

Whenever I think of these lines, I see some kind of giant, with majestic mien, his face turned upward, his magnificent cape swirling about him as he strides among the hilly summits.

Now here’s an odd thing: I was listening for this portion of dialogue between Horatio and Marcellus. I was listening – but I did not hear these lines at this performance. Does that mean they were not actually spoken? Not necessarily, I suppose. I only know that I was primed to hear them – and did not.


This production of Hamlet was  set in modern times. There appears to me some kind of military dictatorship in power. The set was stark; some, but not all, of the male characters were attired in uniform. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is so attired. His make-up was such that he looked rather ghastly, quite ghostly – and believably deceased.

Here is a video trailer for this production. Graham Michael Hamilton plays Hamlet:

In this video, director Joseph Haj comments on his vision of the play:


After the play we were waiting, on the wide steps outside the Folger, for our group of four to assemble. There were quite a few other people there as well. After an uncertain start to the day, the weather had become glorious. Suddenly out through the theater’s doors strode Graham Michael Hamilton. If recollection serves, he had his head down. He may have been hoping to escape unnoticed. No chance – the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. A woman rushed up and threw her arms around the young actor. Along with many others, I went up to him and complimented him on his performance. His smile was absolutely radiant.


*From Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom

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A single day in a museum – and the turbulent, fascinating history of this country comes alive…

May 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm (Art, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

When I was in high school, American history was not so much taught as drummed into us. The process was strictly chronological and concerned primarily presidents and wars. There was no room for inference or subtlety. It was boring beyond belief.

he truth is, of course, that American history is anything  but boring. That point was driven home for me on a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum. First off: what’s with the double title?  The edifice actually houses two museums. Collectively they are now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Before I introduce several of the paintings I especially admired, I’d like to say something about the building itself. Work on the Old Patent Office was begun in 1836 and completed some thirty years later. It is a grandiose vision in the Greek Revival style, and worth seeing just  for itself. And oh, the riches within!

We spent most of our time in the National Portrait Gallery, specifically in the collection called “American Origins.” Here can be found paintings,  sculpture, and artifacts dating from 1600 to 1900.

We saw many portraits of famous Americans. Even if the subjects were known to us, the artists, for the most part, were not:

General William Tecumseh Sherman, by George Peter Alexander Healy (1866)

Daniel Webster, by Francis Alexander (1835)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Alanson Fisher (1853)

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (1806)

More astonishing was encountering so many figures from our history who were completely new to us:

Ira Aldridge, by Henry Perronet Briggs (c.1830)

Born in 1805, Ira Aldridge was a gifted actor. Unable to pursue his profession in the United States, Aldridge moved to England in the 1820s. He never returned to his native land.

In this painting, he is portraying Othello. A Russian critic commented that “…he was Othello himself, as created by Shakespeare.”

Anne Catharine Hoof Green

After emigrating from the Netherlands, Anne Catharine Hoof Green lived with her husband Jonas in Annapolis, Maryland. Jonas Green  was the editor of the Maryland Gazette; when he died in 1767,  Anne Catharine continued to print the Gazette until her death eight years later.

This daguerreotype of John Brown (1846 or 1847) is a famous image of the uncompromising abolitionist. What is not so well known is that it was made by Augustus Washington, son of a former slave.  While a student at Dartmouth College, Washington took up photography in order to help pay his bills. Eventually he set up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut.


When you click on American Origins (above), you will hear a fragment of the most poignant, evocative music. It is from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Here is the famous “Simple Gifts” from that justly beloved work, paired with some spectacular photographs by Ansel Adams:

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This song, so full of inexpressible sadness…

May 18, 2010 at 11:25 am (Music)

“Old friends, old friends, sat on a park bench like bookends…”

I spend a great deal of time on YouTube, primarily watching classical music and ballet videos. Primarily – but not exclusively.  YouTube suggests videos to subscribers based on what they’ve watched recently. Not long ago I spotted this Simon and Garfunkel classic among their recommendations.  I’ve now watched it numerous times, but every time I launch it, I get this clutching sensation in the pit of my stomach. Still, I feel compelled to look, and to listen.

For those of us came of age in the sixties, Simon & Garfunkel were the gods of popular music.  This reminds me why:

Bookends…Will succeeding generations know what these quaint artifacts of the past were actually for? For that matter, will there still be newspapers that can blow in the wind, rather than glow on the screen? (And yes, it hurts my heart as I write this.)

A commenter points out that these two men, both born in 1941, are soon to find out for themselves just “how terribly strange” it is to be seventy. (God willing, I will soon achieve this milestone birthday in four short years.)

I cannot help wondering what gave Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, in their youth, such insight into the inexpressible sadness of mortality. Those lyrics, with their haunting ellipses… Their voices lack power, but the hushed tones are, in this instance, exactly right. I thank these two for this small masterpiece.

Another commenter picked out  the line: “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”


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Let me now praise four wonderful young musicians…

May 12, 2010 at 10:26 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

…Even though they play music that for the most part, I find incomprehensible!

I am referring to Charlton Lee, Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, and Hannah Addario-Berry, of the Del Sol String Quartet:

I attended a concert by this fine ensemble last month. Here is what was on the program:

String Quartet Set by Lou Harrison

String Quartet No.3 by Bela Bartok

Song of the Ch’in by Zhou Long

Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout by Gabriela Lena Frank

Of course, I knew Bartok. I had vaguely heard of Lou Harrison. The other two composers were completely unknown to me.

What was so very special about this concert was the way in which the members of Del Sol sought to make the music accessible to the audience. Before performing each of the works on the program, one of the four players took pains to tell us about the composer and the piece. Their explanations and elucidations were articulate and eloquent. That they are passionately committed to this music, there could be no doubt. They also share a veneration of Bela Bartok as a founding father of modernity in music. For myself, I’ve always had trouble warming to the music of this composer. Much is made of his work as a musical ethnographer, carting clunky recording devices into the hinterland in order to capture the folk tunes of his fellow Hungarians. Trouble is, I rarely hear any echo of that music in his own compositions. So unlike, say, Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose gorgeous, mystical creations are so redolent of the rich folk heritage of England.

Ron describes the Bartok string quartets as “thorny” — this, from a person who greatly esteems this composer. There is one work by Bartok that I do love: the Roumanian Dances, played here by Janine Jansen (and what a delightful outdoor venue, in Amsterdam!):


The musicians of Del Sol, highly skilled and professional in the best sense of the word, succeeded in establishing a warm rapport with the audience. I wanted to hug each of them!

I also wanted very much to like the music. Alas, despite their heroic efforts and great personal appeal…well, for the most part, I just didn’t. And yet, all the same, I enjoyed the concert.

Del Sol appeared as part of a long running series of chamber music performances here in Columbia. The series is called Candlelight Concerts. I don’t attend regularly, but the house was pretty well packed for this event. Residents of this region of central Maryland genuinely admire and support high culture; this is one of the reasons it’s a pleasure to live among them.

As for the Del Sols, their commitment to contemporary music is thoroughly admirable. They’re out there on the cutting edge, willing to try just about anything – as this performance of “StringWreck” amply demonstrates:

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Love, loss – and animal magic: The Black Cat by Martha Grimes

May 9, 2010 at 1:15 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Last month, I wrote a post on Martha Grimes in which I mentioned my anticipation of her new Richard Jury novel. Now I’m happy to report that my hopes were fully justified: The Black Cat was a veritable treat, a tasty mixture of whimsy, acute observation, pathos, wit, appealing characters and a cunningly crafted plot.

Three young women employed by escort services have been murdered. Two of the victims appear to have been leading double lives. The result is a multiplicity of family members, friends, and acquaintances that need to be interviewed. It seems as though the crimes must be related – but how? The girls all worked for different agencies and appear not to have known one another. Jury and company have their work cut out for them.

Watching them do this work is one of the many pleasures of this novel. One of the reasons I love police procedurals is that the reader gets to meet so many interesting characters in the course of an investigation. The interview process is one that requires a mix of tact, empathy, and cunning that not everyone is naturally capable of. In some procedurals, the detectives who are questioning witnesses and suspects employ a heavy handed approach bordering on arrogance. They assume the moral high ground and work to push their interlocutor down into the muck of uncertainty, confusion, and guilt. I’ve encountered this approach in the novels of Peter Robinson, among others,  and found it extremely off putting.

But Superintendent Jury and his fellow officers have a light touch with those they talk to in the course of  this inquiry.  They begin with tact and diplomacy, becoming stern only if they feel they’re getting a less than truthful account from the interviewee. Grimes writes great, natural sounding  dialog. Some of it is tangential to the investigation but nevertheless serves  to humanize the investigators. Here, for instance, are Jury and Jenkins, a fellow detective, talking about Hitchcock films. They had begun by discussing the nature of obsession. Then Jenkins brought up Vertigo, which he calls a “really sick” film. He elaborates:

“Hitchcock was way off base with Vertigo. That character just wasn’t set up right. Now, take Norman Bates. Norman was completely mad-
Jenkins nodded. “But the guy in Strangers on a Train, Bruno. Now, there was a characterization. Bruno was only half-mad. Both of those characters were more believable than the James Stewart character.”

You get  the sense of real people talking here. It’s a conversation that’s fun to be party to.

Other things are transpiring at the same time that this complex murder inquiry moves forward. For one thing, our old friend Harry Johnson, late of The Old Wine Shades, reappears, primarily because Jury is pursuing him in a Javert-like manner and trying to determine his involvement, if any, in these crimes. Harry’s dog Mungo is also front and center, along with three black cats and a drawer full of kittens. (The kittens are the progeny of the one of the cats, Schrodinger.) There’s a great deal of back and forth with the cats  between Harry’s house and the Old Wine Shades. It got very confusing but I didn’t worry about it. And I should warn you: the animals talk to each other. Or, perhaps I should say, they think to each other. And we are privy to their thoughts. This might annoy some readers, but I enjoyed it. I thought it was whimsical without being cloying.  And well – I talk to my cat all the time, so I’m used this sort of thing.

Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, Jury visits his lover Lu Aguilar in the hospital whenever time allows. Lu was terribly injured in an auto accident and may not pull through. His heart is obviously aching for her.

The Black Cat is a lovely book; I recommend it.

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Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes: a few final words

May 7, 2010 at 12:49 pm (books, Music, Mystery fiction)

Frances made a lengthy, perceptive comment on my post on the Laurie King talk. She elaborated in particular on some of the points that King made concerning Mary Russell’s Jewish identity. Alas, on occasions such as this, I can never bring to mind everything I want to make note of after the fact. Frances has expressed both King’s sentiments and her own with her usual eloquence, and I thank her for that.

Aloneness piled on aloneness – that is the sense one gets of Mary Russell’s situation. She must fight her way back from this alienation, and her alliance with Sherlock Holmes make that possible for her. And of course, she enlarges the world of possibility for him as well.

This has put me in mind of the words of  Gustav Mahler: “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.  Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.” (Do yourself a favor and watch this video of Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic playing the blazing finale of Mahler’s First Symphony. I’ve seen this many times, and – well, just watch it yourself.)

Along with Frances’s comment is one from Scott Monty, another genial Sherlockian who took the time to recommend two websites of interest to fellow Holmes  enthusiasts. (See the link provided in the first line of this post.)


I first read “Mysterious Circumstances” by David Grann when it appeared in the New Yorker in 2004. It’s subtitled “The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic,” and here’s how it begins:

‘Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes, believed that he had finally solved the case of the missing papers. Over the past two decades, he had been looking for a trove of letters, diary entries, and manuscripts written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes. The archive was estimated to be worth nearly four million dollars, and was said by some to carry a deadly curse, like the one in the most famous Holmes story, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Yes, this is yet another of those proverbial instances in which truth is stranger than fiction. This essay is not available online, but it’s included in this newly published collection: 

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Laurie R King at the Howard County Library, and some further Sherlockian points of interest

May 4, 2010 at 1:15 am (books, Film and television, Historical fiction, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

This past Friday night, Laurie R King gave a talk at the East Columbia Branch of the Howard County Library. Area crime  fiction fans had been awaiting Ms King’s appearance for some time now; in the event, we were not disappointed. Ms King was lively, frank, and witty.

After her opening remarks, the author read a short selection from the newest book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The God of the Hive. She prefaced her reading with two pieces of information: first, that in this novel, she employs multiple points of view; and second, that Holmes and Russell are not, at this point, together. First we find ourselves on board ship with Holmes and a wounded man by the name of Damian Adler.  This brief passage was followed by one featuring Mary Russell  and a little girl. Not surprisingly, all parties appear to be fleeing some sort of danger.

King talked about the origin of the character Mary Russell. As she says on her website, “Mary Russell walked into my life with the first line of  The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and took over.”  When asked  about Mary’s extreme youth – she is fifteen at the time that Beekeeper opens – King blithely answered, “That’s how old she was [presumably when she first took up residence in the author’s imagination].  Same answer for the query as to why  Mary Russell is Jewish, although there is some background here:  Laurie R King holds an MA degree in theology, with a special interest in the Old Testament.

What about the considerable age difference between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes? King made an interesting observation here. She reminded us that World War One decimated the population of young men in Britain, leaving so-called “surplus women” with very few viable marriage prospects.  Because of this dire situation, a number of these women chose to marry available older men. During the war, Mary Russell was at Oxford, normally a male-dominated environment. But the young men she might have met and been attracted to were not there; they were in the trenches in Europe. (It should also be noted that the author was for many years married to a professor, Dr. Noel King, who was thirty years her senior. She was widowed last year.)

King spoke of the pleasure of writing historical fiction – the past provides universal reference points; knowledge of that past offers a better understanding of the present era. Her attachment to Britain is vital and ongoing; she regularly visits family there. Pauline, of our mystery discussion group the Usual Suspects, was present on this occasion. She hails from England herself and took the opportunity Friday night of assuring Laurie King that she got the landscape of the Sussex Downs exactly right. (Pauline recently led us in a discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which our group read in honor of Ms King’s forthcoming visit.)

What about the conceit of the mysterious trunk and its contents? King smiled broadly, telling us that this invention was in keeping with the idea that a real character, namely Mary Russell herself, actually wrote the books about her adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Just as so many readers like to believe in the reality of Holmes, this gives them a chance to believe equally in the reality of Mary Russell!

As for the moment in history at which King begins her saga, it too was chosen deliberately. Conan Doyle did not set any of the Holmes stories during or beyond the First World War. This is precisely when Laurie King picks up his story.  Here’s what she states on her website:

Conan Doyle’s stories cease to be set after the beginning of the Great War (he wrote stories after 1914, but they were invariably set long before) because that war killed off the world that was Sherlock Holmes. In the Russell stories, I look at what Holmes might have looked like after that huge change in his society. I honor and respect the character, and his creator, at all times, even when I tweak them for their male posturing and pretensions. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is certainly a form of love.


During our recent discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Frances, our resident Sherlockian and member of Watson’s Tin Box (“a Scion Society of the Baker Street Irregulars”),  brought this recent publication to our attention:  This lively volume is filled with fascinating information, from the life  Conan Doyle, the origins of the stories, background as to time and place, the supporting cast of characters, to the stories’ impressive afterlife in print, film, and television. Here’s what the authors say about the Mary Russell series:

‘Despite the improbability of the romance, or perhaps because of it, King’s books have attracted a legion of fans who now write their own pastiches of the series.

I particularly enjoyed the section on the landmark Grenada Television films. Producer Michael Cox was determined to be as faithful to the original tales as possible. He and his time began by scrutinizing all sixty of them for the minutest details of time, place, and character traits. The end product of these efforts was The Baker Street File: A Guide to the Appearance and Habits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

It is impossible to watch these films and not be awed by their superb production values. But it would have been an empty exercise without the right actor for the starring role. In casting Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective, Cox and company struck gold:

‘Brett’s performance came like a thunderclap to viewers used to the traditional interpretation of Holmes. Whereas previous Sherlocks tended to fix on individual characteristics of Holmes’s complex personality, Brett presented the full character, warts and all. Not only did Brett’s performance finally replace [Basil] Rathbone’s as Sherlock Holmes in the public mind, but it also changed the public’s understanding of Holmes. No longer was Sherlock a stuffy old-fashioned straight arrow, saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” while being followed around by a doddering old duffer. No, Brett’s Holmes was mesmerizing, brilliant, moody, drug-abusing, and, to be honest, a bit scary.

Here’s a clip from A Scandal in Bohemia. Watson is played by David Burke:

I was thrilled to find this rare film footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it, he talks about what inspired him to create Sherlock Holmes:

On the Mystery Lovers’ Tour of England and Scotland that we took in 2007, we visited the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Initially, we weren’t sure why we were being taken to this particular venue. but as usual, our guides had made a brilliant choice. Once there, we were addressed by Dr. Alan Mackaill, who showed us around a permanent exhibit in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum entitled “The Real Sherlock Holmes.” Dr. Mackaill is the co-author of the book that accompanies this exhibit:  . The gentleman on the right is the legendary Dr. Joseph Bell. On the back of this book, a letter is reproduced. It is on loan to the museum from the Stisted family, who are directed descendants of Dr. Bell. The letter is from Conan Doyle to Bell, and in it, the former states:

“It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes, and though in the tories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the outpatient ward.”

Here is the letter:

My husband and I both recall Dr. Mackaill’s saying that he himself discovered this letter among the documents shown him by the Stisted family. I have not, however, been able to verify this, after the fact.

Click here to see video of Dr. Mackaill giving Scottish actor David Hayman a tour similar to the one he gave our group.


After her talk, Laurie King stayed on to sign books for attendees. Throughout, she was unfailingly gracious and good-humored. She told us that she wanted to highlight libraries during this book tour. Here she is, on yet another occasion, doing just that.

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