I love it when authors return to their usual quality after a failed attempt at doing something really interesting. The last Laurie R. King Sherlock Holmes novel was a seriously weak attempt at farce. In her latest Holmes novel, Garment of Shadows, King returns us to the Holmes and Mary Russell we all know and love. With political intrigue, investigation, twists and turns, as well as some great historical information, this is a standout novel and a refreshing return to the normal.
After the events of The Pirate King, Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, are in Morocco in 1924. The novel opens with Russell waking up locked in a room with no memory of who she is or how she got there, a painful headache the only reminder of what has happened. She's covered in blood, which can't be a good sign. She still has her wits, and when soldiers come banging on her door, she's able to get away. Meanwhile, two old friends have drawn Holmes into a growing conflict between France, Spain, and the strengthening Moroccan independence movement. War may be coming to Morocco. Will Russell find her memory—and Holmes—before things get worse?
I love the conceit in King's books that Russell is their author and King merely the editor. There's even an author's note in Garment of Shadows about how some of the events in the book happened while she wasn’t there, and that she took them from disjointed segments, remarks, and testimonies told over the next few weeks and even years. She says that if this makes readers think the book is fiction, so be it.
King demonstrates that the previous book was just a bump in the road, bringing back the suspense and mystery that her books are known for and allowing the brief humorous asides to lighten the mood instead of trying to be zany. That doesn't mean there aren't some funny bits in this novel, such as the first time Russell meets up with Holmes while her memory is still gone. I hope Holmes' head is feeling better. Moments like this are where King shines.
Her characterization skills are on showcase, too. Holmes is perfect, seemingly aloof to the whole thing, his mind working feverishly to figure out what is going on while nobody else can do so. Still, we see that he does truly care for Russell, even though he is not a publicly demonstrative person. Russell works great as a narrator, especially with her amnesia. King captures Russell's uncertainty throughout the whole thing yet also shows her cunning mind as she slowly works out what must be true and who she might have been. The other characters are also fairly three-dimensional, even the young boy who can't (or won't) speak but who seems to be everywhere, saying a great deal through motions and actions.
One of the many strengths of Garment of Shadows is the historical detail King puts into it. Much of the information on the Rif Revolt in the early 1920s was brand new to me, and it inspired me to search out what really happened, to see how much of the story was true and how much was King weaving her own characters into the fabric of history. This is the sign of a well-researched book, when the seams of the story fit together so perfectly.
The only minor fault in Garment of Shadows is that occasionally it slows down as King explores the setting and explains what's going on in the world around the characters. This doesn't happen often, though, and the duration is usually short. Barbara Hambly always manages to integrate setting and action to great effect, but King doesn't do as good a job in this case.
That's the only thing that mars an otherwise wonderful book full of twists and turns, characters who may not be who they appear to be, and just a little bit of action. It's nice having our old friends back.