I've always found Laurie R. King's Sherlock Holmes books to be an interesting take on the character. Taking place just after World War I, they tell the story of Mary Russell, a young woman of quick intelligence who finds herself joining the famous (and often thought fictional) detective in new bouts of matching wits with dastardly villains, eventually becoming his wife. While I haven't read the whole series, I have read a few here and there throughout. I jumped at the chance to snatch up the latest Mary Russell novel Pirate King. Sadly, it felt like I accidentally jumped into an empty pool.
Mary Russell has gone on a lot of adventures as Sherlock Holmes' wife, but this is something even she has never experienced. Chief Inspector Lestrade asks her to go undercover with a British film company whose eccentric owner wants to do a strange version of the "Pirates of Penzance." It seems that somebody in the film production company is suspected of nefarious deeds on the sets of various movies the company has made. Mary is supposed to figure out who's behind everything from gun-running to drug smuggling, depending on the movie. Even Mary can't predict what will end up happening as the entourage moves from Portugal to Morocco, and she'll have to use all of her wits to keep the company safe.
Pirate King is obviously supposed to be a comedy; the situations that King puts her characters into are patently absurd, and many of the characters are over the top. Unfortunately, the purpose of comedy is to make the reader laugh, and there really isn't much that's funny here. The jokes and strange situations left me cold, mainly because the characters were either so broad as to be almost non-existent or they were hardly characters at all. King relies on many of the company players, as well as Mary's reactions to them, for many of the jokes, yet it's almost impossible to keep them straight: there are thirteen girls, thirteen constables, and thirteen pirates. King throws them all into the pot, in addition to the staff of the movie company itself, and it all mixes together into something unrecognizable.
The first two-thirds of the book sets up all of these situations, shows us the characters, and demonstrates Mary's problem-solving skills (unfortunately not in actually solving the mystery, but instead in dealing with the problems inherent in the film). These are supposed to be the main comedic bits, but since they didn't charm me as intended, essentially nothing happens in the book until almost the last 100 pages. This makes for a dreary read early on.
Pirate King isn't all bad, though. I love the conceit of the movie idea of a movie within a movie. The idea is that a group of actors who are going to star in The Pirates of Penzance happen upon some real pirates. Something could probably have been made from that premise, if it wasn't in this series.
I also enjoyed the intriguing figure of Passoa, a Portuguese gentleman who has been hired as a translator for when the crew is working in Portugal. He is also supposed to help them hire some authentic-looking pirates, which may prove to be their undoing. A poet at heart, he has a number of different literary personae. He's always fun to watch when he's interacting with Mary.
Once things start happening, the novel picks up, though only to move from a glacial pace to a slow and steady one. The climax of the novel isn't so much exciting as satisfying. King throws in a couple of twists that keep things hopping a bit (although even in this section of the book, there is little suspense).
Ultimately, Pirate King fails to achieve what it is trying to do. I'm not saying that a comedy in this series can't work, but this book is evidence that a farce probably won't. I understand the need to change the pace of a series a little bit by adding a little comedic spice to the drama of previous books. A good comedy is always enough to revitalize a series.
Unfortunately, this isn't it.