What an intriguing concept. Laurie R. King has created an interesting scenario where Sherlock Holmes is alive and well in the early 1920s, with a new assistant and chronicler (and wife!) named Mary Russell. I know Justice Hall is the sixth book in the series so it's been around for a while, but this is my first exposure to it. Thankfully, you don't need any prior knowledge of the series to read this one, despite the fact that it's a direct sequel to one of the earlier ones. King does a good job of covering everything new readers might need. Unfortunately, she doesn't actually create a case that keeps the reader riveted throughout the book.
Holmes and Mary have just returned from a case and are looking forward to some rest and relaxation when an old friend shows up bleeding on their doorstep. Ali, a nomad they met in the wilds of Palestine on a previous case, is actually part of the English aristocracy. His brother, Mahmoud, has come home because he is now a duke. Ali wants to get his brother back to Palestine, but the matter of succession must be dealt with first. The previous heir was killed in World War I, but Mahmoud thinks there may be more behind it: that he was executed for cowardice. As Holmes and Russell further their investigation, the situation becomes even more curious, and it may lead to murder in the present day.
This review may end up sounding negative overall, so let me say right off the bat that Justice Hall succeeded in one of its important jobs: it caused me to go out and buy two more books in the series. King's characterization skills are exemplary, with Holmes and Russell proving to be true three-dimensional characters who are fun to read about. They don't really strike me as a married couple except on the rare occasion, but that could be due to their vast age difference and is probably better explained in earlier books. Other than that, they are beautifully rendered. The same goes for the other main characters in the plot - especially Iris, who has a great combination of delicious humor and intelligence that springs off the page. King also does an excellent job of contrasting Ali and Mahmoud with their new aristocratic personas of Alistair and Marsh, especially notable because she succeeds even with those who haven't read the previous book.
Unfortunately, while King's writing style is definitely good, the pace she sets in Justice Hall is far too sedate for my liking. King spends a lot of time introducing the reader to everybody, setting up the situation and giving us Marsh's family tree, but I kept wanting her to get on with it. Marsh's suspicions come out early and provide an intriguing hook, but it sometimes takes a backseat to the manor house setting and Mary's stay there. This is partly the fault of the narrative style, because book is told completely from Mary's point of view (the same as Doyle's books were from Watson's). When Holmes goes off to London to find something out, we don't hear anything about it until he returns, leaving Mary to do some family sleuthing of her own. We get to find out a lot about the family that way, but not much more.
As the case builds and some of the secrets are revealed, the book gets a lot more interesting; the last 100 pages or so kept my eyes glued to the page. However, it takes a long time to get there. Perhaps the fact that issues of family inheritance in British nobility seem almost old-hat is the cause of my restlessness. While the characters themselves are interesting in their way, the family problems themselves aren't that appealing. The front cover says "A novel of suspense," but I didn't feel much suspense until the very end. That's a failing in my book.
On the positive side, King does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of Sherlock Holmes, at least to this Holmes neophyte. The phrasing fits the early 1920s perfectly, and the whole book feels very English. Mary is a stellar character, the perfect foil for Holmes in his older age (though it's unclear just how old he is) and she comes across well from the writing.
All in all, I'm a bit torn about Justice Hall. With a better pace, the book may have been riveting from beginning to end. As it is, it has definitely whetted my appetite for more Holmes-Russell adventures. Maybe not the best place to start the series, but the fact that it's driven me to read more means that it's not a horrible place to start, either.