Review and Interview with Laurie R. King

By Joan Leotta
(October, 2013)

By Laurie R. King

Bantam, September 10, 2013
ISBN-10: 0345531760
ISBN-13: 978-0345531766
Hardcover, $26.00
Kindle: $6.49

Real artists take the stage in this jazz age era novel of debauchery in the city of light — including Man Ray and Picasso along with literary luminaries like Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein. Cole Porter even makes an appearance. Unfortunately, so does the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a theatre named for political puppetry during that time which was home to horror on-stage that ranged from killing children and women and more. An early director had taken it from the Punch and Judy commentary style of its namesake Lyonaise puppet, Guignol, to the art deco answer to snuff films. Along with the theatre, King applies her talent for description to the horrors of an artist who uses human bones to create his art. More terror for the likes of me. Admittedly, I was even more terrified to learn there is someone today who uses bones and human ash to create art advertising on the internet.

The theater, in one of Paris' less desirable arrondissment, Pigalle, is the scene for a lot of the action as King's newest detective, Harris Stuyvesant, tries to find a "lost girl." Pip is lost in more than one way. Her parents hired Stuyvesant, an ex-FBI man who ran afoul of J Edgar, to find their daughter, a girl who fled to Europe to find herself and spends her allowance flitting about Paris in the company of the likes of Man Ray and other less desirable types.

For Harris Stuyvesant, the former FBI man, the assignment is a private investigator's dream — he's getting paid to troll this exciting new world in his search for Philippa Crosby (Pip) the daughter of a very rich American. Harris fits all too well into la vie de bohème, although I suppose one could argue that he has to explore the behavior of the locale in order to delve deeply enough to bring success to his search.

The lyrical opening of the book reminds the reader that Laurie King is definitely among the most royal of descriptive writers. She crafts each sentence with the care of a poet and then takes these sentences and builds them into a mystery plot that amazes, amuses, and in this case, horrifies. I admit I missed TOUCHSTONE, the 2008 novel that introduced Harris, her only male detective. I'm an avid fan of King's two other detective series, Mary Russell, wife of Sherlock Holmes and the Kate Martinelli mysteries set in San Francisco. This newer detective is intriguing but I do not like him as well as I like the other two. The same may be said of the book, for me. King's writing style achieves its usual royal levels, but I am not a fan of the horror genre. In the interview which follows, King explains why she shifted into horror. She says it was required to reflect the chaos of the setting, the late 20s and upcoming depression. I admit the validity and add that historically many of the horrors inspired by cultish spiritualism and wildly experimental atmosphere were a part of that era. Indeed, in 1929 Paris, everything and anything was acceptable from cannabis to cannibalism. But the very talent which makes her books so vivid put me off when dealing with blood soaked violence. If you enjoy the horror-mystery genre, I venture to say, you will find that King has mastered it. She never drips so much blood on the page that we forget the plot. King is always as adept at plot as she is at description.

For fans of her writing who, as I do, await the next installment of the Holmes and Russell series, we can happily expect another as soon as her pen allows.

This interview deals mainly with her Holmes series and the difficulties and joys of picking up a character already iconic and placing him in a new milieu, advanced in time from the original series, with a new, additional role (to his classic one of detective), that of husband to Mary Russell, series protagonist. At the end of this set of questions, are some dealing with the current novel.

Q: Did you always plan the Holmes and Russell books to be a series?

A: Sure. THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE is an episodic book that describes how Russell and Holmes came to partner, but in and of itself it's clearly only the beginning of a very long story.

Q: Mary Russell and Holmes are a May/December pair and Holmes is getting older very quickly. In the last Holmes-Russell novel, GARMENT OF SHADOWS, we see less of Holmes. Is this due to his age?

A: Holmes isn't actually getting older very fast, since the books each take place in periods of less than a couple of months — it took six books (from THE GAME to GARMENT OF SHADOWS) to work through 1925, so at this rate Holmes won't see another birthday until 2025 or so! Plus the next one will be set partly in Japan, which was 1924, so we haven't actually finished with that year yet. Holmes may wear out, but he's not about to die of old age.

Q: Do you find it more difficult to deal with the Holmes series, than the Harris Stuyvesant or Martinelli ones since the broad outlines of the Holmes character were cast by someone else?

A: At the beginning, I was far more interested in Mary Russell than I was in Holmes, but as time went on, I began to doubt Conan Doyle's wisdom in refusing to place his character into post-WWI England. All the Conan Doyle stories are set before the War, as if the writer couldn't imagine Holmes in the startlingly changed England of the Twenties. I felt this was selling Holmes short, and lately I've been looking at the Great Detective with greater sympathy and interest, to see how his character does change. Although it's true, if I'd been writing actual pastiches and having to place the characters back into the Conan Doyle chronology, I probably would have found it very difficult.

Q: How do you maintain that balance between the voice of the "original" and your own writing voice? I see a lot of your own style (because I read the Martinelli books too) but you are so true to the time period, I think that also helps give it the air of being "Holmesian." True? Or is this an inaccurate observation on my part?

A: I always have in mind that Russell is writing these "memoirs" as an old woman looking back on her life. Her voice is more formal than would have been natural even in the Twenties, and there is a great deal of personal history she just doesn't tell the reader about. "Her" Holmes is not the Holmes of John Watson, but if I had aimed for that, it wouldn't have been natural anyway. So I just let her speak as she wishes, and I think the perception of a living Holmes is more immediate because of that.

Q: Did you try the Holmes series out in a short story or simply launch into the first book?

A: My first venture into crime fiction was the beginning line of THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE: "I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book when I nearly stepped on him..."

Q: As always, the process from writing to publication is longer than the gestation period of the novel itself — any advice on those who are in the waiting and sending phase?

A: The difference between a one-book writer and a writing career lies in continuing to produce words. Keep writing, always.

Q: Can we expect any more Holmes books?

A: Absolutely. The next one finds them in 1924 Japan, then 1925 Oxford. It should be out in early 2015.

Q: Any tips for writers who want to carry on an old character or even interact with real people from history?

A: If you write real-life people into fiction, try to choose people without living descendants. It is very disconcerting to come face-to-face with a person whose father your mind insists on thinking that you made up.

Some Questions about the current book, THE BONES OF PARIS.

Q:THE BONES OF PARIS, set in Paris, is a new direction for you; a new detective and a new subgenre — horror. Why did you decide to get so graphic with the terror and horror of the era?

A: We have this highly romantic vision of Paris in the Twenties, composed of youth and freedom and the heroic struggles of the artist. In fact, by the end of the Twenties the youth was fading, criminals and hangers-on had moved in, and the American community that came to life in Paris had either moved on or failed. The catastrophic economy of the Thirties is just around the corner, and horror is a natural response.

Q: Why did you choose to use so much French language in the book, as a way to enrich the setting?

A: I hadn't realized I was using a lot of French — there's less than I had in the first draft! I tried merely to sprinkle a few words here and there for flavor and emphasis, and since I didn't want to put in a glossary, in each case I follow it with either a direct translation (often in the mind of the protagonist, Harris Stuyvesant) or a reaction by characters that clarify the meaning.

Q: Can we expect some post-depression books with this new detective? If so, will he stay in Paris?

A: I doubt Harris will find another adventure in Paris, although yes, he's going to move around Europe in the Thirties. Probably at some point he'll see the Spanish civil war, but I'm also thinking of Stockholm, and maybe Venice.

Q: Anything else you want to say about this new series? Or will it remain a single volume?

A: It will be a small series, I think, beginning in 1926 England with TOUCHSTONE, now in 1929 with THE BONES OF PARIS. Lots going on there, I think.

Thank you, Laurie King!

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