REVIEW/RESPONSE and Miss Bates Reads A Mystery Novel: Laurie R. King’s DREAMING SPIES and Elliptical Romance

Dreaming_SpiesMiss Bates rarely ventures outside her romance reading enclave, but when she hears the siren call of another genre, it’s a crime novel she goes to. Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, named one of the twentieth century’s 100 best mysteries by IMBA, has been in Miss B’s TBR pile forever. Dreaming Spies, with its detecting team of Sherlock Holmes and wife, Mary Russell, is 13th in the series. (Rats … now Miss B. has to go back to twelve more!) Amidst, like her friend Vassiliki, a super-busy near-non-reading few weeks, Miss B. managed to get through Dreaming Spies in dribs and drabs. But she must read, even when deadlines loom. As a result of this sporadic reading, often conducted in bed nodding over a gently glowing Kindle, Dreaming Spies‘ mystery receded into inchoate Miss B. head-mess (not to fault King, but Miss B’s weak focus and exhaustion) and what emerged into the foreground was Mary Russell’s first-person perspective, a wonderful use of first-person “voice,” and the things “not said” about her marriage to Holmes. Though Miss Bates doesn’t often indulge in blurb quoting, her hazy retention of plot details, in this case, necessitates it.

What the blurb tells us about Dreaming Spies:

After a lengthy case in India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on the steamer “Thomas Carlyle,” bound for Japan. Though they’re not the vacationing types, Russell is looking forward to a change of focus – not to mention the chance of traveling to a place Holmes has not visited before. The idea of the pair being on equal footing is enticing to a woman who often must race to catch up with her older, highly skilled husband.

Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman, the earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer: not an unlikely career choice for a man richer in social connections than in pounds sterling. And then there’s the lithe young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. Haruki Sato agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that the young woman is not who she claims to be.

Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to Oxford’s venerable Bodleian Library, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving a small book with enormous implications of international extortion, espionage, and shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution – and topple an empire.

The blurb doesn’t do the novel’s complexity and pace justice. Firstly, Dreaming Spies has a lovely turning-in-on-itself framing structure: it opens in 1925 Sussex, moves dramatically to Oxford, a bleeding Haruki appearing in Mary Russell’s garden, returns to 1924 and their acquaintance aboard the Thomas Carlyle, becomes a stunning Japanese travelogue of places and customs as Holmes and Mary make their way from Yokohama to Tokyo, and returns to Oxford and the resolution to the mysterious book and its implications. Miss Bates loved the novel for how it wove an homage to the 17th century master-haiku-ist, Basho, into the narrative, using haiku as epigraphs to each chapter, for its portrayal of the “bright young things” shipboard characters, for the background of the Great War that surely never stopped haunting its survivors, for a gem of a scene with Japan’s Prince Regent, later the Emperor Hirohito, and for the cryptic love between its detecting protagonists.  

Crime and romance novel are linked in how they reveal something and have a similar end in the re-ordering of the world into a better place. But their compass needles point in different directions: the crime novel toward justice; the romance, towards love. Both are concerned with a world remade in truth, in genuineness, of social order in the one and cohesion in the other. Taken together, what more could we ask of the world than justice and love? But their needles make for different narrative arcs and, like the appearance of a dot of light and dark in the Taoist yin-yang symbol, the hint of romance in the former and mystery in the latter are a fictive way of portraying the complexities of revelation. While Miss Bates enjoyed Dreaming Spies‘ many literary aspects, she was fascinated, as a romance reader, by the elliptical nature of Mary and Sherlock’s marriage. (She thought it telling that readers have begged King to write their wedding scene and she is adamant in not doing so, as Miss Bates found out from King’s website.) For the nature of crime fiction is the bringing to justice of a world whose equilibrium has been upset by wrong; and the nature of romance fiction is the bringing about of the world’s renewal by the hope of new life as created by love (which is why Miss Bates defends the baby-filled epilogue, no matter how trite). Miss Bates thinks, like the elusive meaning of the yin-yang, we may find a smidgen of romance in the crime novel and a hint of justice in the romance.

In King’s Dreaming Spies, that smidgen of romance is in what is “not said” about Mary and Sherlock’s marriage. It frustrated Miss Bates romance-reading heart, where hero and heroine’s inner worlds are thrown open and feelings, thoughts, and desire are revealed. In its place, Miss Bates found companionship, solitude in commitment, and a healthy dose of rivalry to keep things fresh and interesting, or as Mary says of her marriage, “beyond wifely reinforcement, our relationship always had something in the order of a contest about it.” If the romance novel is the culmination, in literary form, of the courtship, then, the crime novel that includes a committed relationship may be the working-out of the post-HEA 😉

To follow, a little exploration for Miss Bates’ own entertainment of the elliptical romance, or anti-romantic, in Dreaming Spies. The first hint of Mary and Sherlock’s relationship is anything but, as Mary yearns for time to herself. She and Holmes retain two residences; here’s Mary arriving at her Oxford home: ” … once inside I would find warmth, refreshment … and silence. Holmes and I had been in each other’s pockets for a bit too long.” Why … splutter … why, Mary has all the makings of a spinster and an introvert, thought Miss B. Look at the line that follows, “The house was silent, weighty with the comfort of a thousand books.” Now, is there a more marvelous phrase in literature? Mary is aware of her need for solitude: she’s not angry, or frustrated with Holmes, as we learn in the course of the narrative, and neither is he. She and he take time for themselves, while they share an affectionate and congenial marriage. It may not be “romantic,” but it is romance. One of Miss B’s favourite phrases was an innocuous, but telling one, as Mary and Holmes bide time before an adventure, as they spend the “intervening hours tormenting each other with Japanese drills.”

What remains elliptical in the Holmes-Russell marriage is the life of the body, of which we get so much in romance. What is revealed is a married couple who share a life of the mind, of which romance could use a little. Miss Bates loved how Russell and Holmes’ relationship was unique, how they saw each other as individuals and not social labels; on board, a passenger remarks to Mary” ” ‘You’re married to that older man, aren’t you?’ she asked. Holmes was not an “older man”; he was … well, Holmes.” In romance, the May-to-December trope is attractive to many readers and makes for some great conflict and tension, here all is dispelled in individuation. There is no less intimacy for it. In Holmes and Russell, we find the camaraderie of two distinct, yet compatible personalities. Here they are, discussing Haruki:

I retired to a deckchair with my book. Holmes glowered down at the teeming dock-side below. I pointedly kept my eyes on the pages.

“What do you make of her, Russell?”

… “Miss Sato? She seems both intelligent and competent.”

“Yes.” He drew out the word. I was not surprised when it was followed by the sound of his cigarette case clicking open. I sighed, and let the book fall. There are drawbacks to having a husband with a restless mind.

Other than the scene’s sheer delight, Miss Bates was enamoured of Russell’s love of books and how they served as her armour against her husband’s “sharp mind,” a refuge, a cocoon, but not an escape. Mary loves books and resents anything that takes her away from them. But she loves Holmes too and knows when he needs a sounding-board. Rueful tolerance, alliance, and companionship, the stuff of the post-HEA, or as Mary spectacularly says, in Buddhist and Christian terms, “my own partner on the Way”.

There is a dearth of intimacy in Dreaming Spies, but King manages to infuse her elliptical romance with tenderness. One night, on the road to Tokyo, disguised as Buddhist pilgrims, Holmes and Russell lie sleeping, “I woke standing bolt upright in a pitch-black room, primed to run, heart racing for no discernible reason. Fortunately, Holmes broke my panic by clearing his throat, Holmes; bed: Japan.” The beauty and precision of the elliptical moment is in Holmes’ ability to anchor and reassure Russell with one short throat clearing, and leave her her dignity intact, no “baby baby I’ve got you” (Miss Bates hates this too-oft-used romance phrase) infantilizing of the romance heroine by the hero. At another time, when Russell has to go out on the “mission,” this is Holmes’ reaction: ” … he was Holmes, so he would let me go. At the same time, he was Holmes, and he would worry.” Protection and freedom, respect and trust for the heroine to know her mind, abilities, and limits: there’s isn’t much to the scene, or Russell’s understanding of her husband, but the ideal hero’s qualities are present. Russell’s reasons for marrying are the best one Miss Bates has ever read, “I married Holmes for the adventure of it, not from any delusion of security.”

There is, in romance, a kind of sound and fury. While Miss Bates is a “sound and fury” kind of gal, she loved the elliptical romance of Mary and Sherlock. While romance is the fantasy, to the avowed spinster, this sounds like the ideal marriage: “We spent the rest of the evening in our rooms, wearing pyjama trousers and yukata kimonos, quietly turning the pages of our respective books.” Miss Bates leaves you with this final image of Mary and Sherlock’s companionship and shared purpose: “Safe behind my door, we bathed, Holmes shaved, we ate. When he had reached the tobacco stage, we laid our two books on the table before us, and we talked.” The stuff HEAs are made of …

Miss Bates loved having her exclusively romance diet experience a palate-refreshment in Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies. But, in the end, the most enjoyable aspect was the romance, albeit a subtle, understated one. The working out of the drawn out mystery plot was something she could leave behind … which she did, when she quit the mystery novel. She’s drawn some broad and most likely not terribly accurate generalizations, so if you’re fan of the series, share your thoughts about it in the comments. Miss Austen, who herself was a fan of elliptical romance, would’ve enjoyed King’s novel and deemed evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies was released on February 24th by Bantam Dell Books and is available in “e” and paper formats at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Bantam Dell for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

20 thoughts on “REVIEW/RESPONSE and Miss Bates Reads A Mystery Novel: Laurie R. King’s DREAMING SPIES and Elliptical Romance

  1. Thank you Miss Bates for the timely reminder of Laurie R King! I discovered them years ago via an obsessed friend and ploughed my way through the first 4 or 5 I think – and I loved them to the point of numerous re-readings – but as is the fate of many series; if I end up waiting a while for the next one… my grasshopper attention span has jumped onto the next blade of grass and I forgot all about them…

    I do remember that I loved the first ultimate meeting of minds, where each learns from the other, (despite the genius-ness of one), then the secondary and VERRY slow burn romance. It always seems like a truer partnership than many of the Sherlock reiterations that seems to abound at the moment; that the positive and not-so-positive tendencies in one half, were not just balanced by their counterpart, but were understood and given space.

    I feel a binge re-read coming on!


    1. I’m so glad the series has voices raised in its praise. Other than the wonderful relationship Holmes and Russell share, I think the writing is very fine: witty, subtle, and like water around a rock, it fits itself to its setting, characterization. I loved the journey Holmes and Russell take in Japan and I think you will too. From what I could tell from King’s website, she averages about one Russell-Holmes book a year. They’re worth waiting for, but yes, like you and your wonderful phrasing, I’m a “grasshopper attention span” reader too in this age of instant gratification. But I think these are worth waiting for … 🙂


  2. Ooh!! I LOVE The Mary Russell series even though I’ve read just the first in the series!! And yes, I love how in the very first book the foundation for the Russell-Holmes relationship is laid. I imagine it would be a whole lot of fun to watch that relationship mature and deepen over time!

    For some reason I keep starting and stopping the second in the series and this post just reminded me to pick it up again, and persist! (The second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, is the one in which they get married and I’ve heard time and again from bloggers whose tastes I trust that it has some of the most romantically done scenes, ever)


    1. I’m most excited to dig The Beekeeper’s Apprentice out of my TBR and so looking forward to the 13 I can relish at leisure. I loved the rivalry and meeting of minds of the two protagonists and I love how they “tolerate” each others’ quibbles. But the love shines through as well … there are some marvelous moments which I left out of the review b/c, well, it would’ve been even longer. There’s a great scene where Holmes has to put on some tight-fitting Japanese clothes and Mary takes a long look at him and how great he looks, there’s such a spark of physicality in the scene! Then, Russell says to him, “That’s just not fair!” ’cause her outfit doesn’t look as good. Healthy, rueful rivalry and attraction after 12 books of marriage, pretty good, I say!


  3. I was fortunate enough to attend a reading/talk by Ms King, wherein the age difference between Holmes and Russell was addressed. The author said she had no problems with it at all, as she herself had married a man 30 years her senior and it worked just fine! Coupled with other remarks she has made over the years re: Holmes’ age, I have no trouble picturing him as 55 to Mary’s 25.

    As with any series the quality of the stories varies from book to book–I’ve read them all and enjoyed most, with ‘Justice Hall’ being my favorite (though it is a very fraught story–keep the tissues handy).


    1. I read King’s long-form website bio and was aware of the age difference between her and her professor husband. I don’t have a problem with their age difference either. Russell would’ve been a spinster were it not for Holmes, so I understand the story on that level. 😉

      I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series and I have so many to enjoy as I am a late-comer/convert. I’m especially looking forward to Justice Hall now I know it’s your favourite!


  4. Miss Bates
    I am glad you enjoyed this. Your comments about the relationship between Holmes and Mary are spot on. I read the series for those small glimpses of their private life (as well as the adventures/mysteries).
    I envy you the chance to read these books for the first time. I really should go back and do a re-read.
    (The usual warning applies, of course: The books will appeal, more or less, depending on one’s tolerance for the plot and the secondary characters: Holmes and Russell are always excellent.).


    1. Phew. Thank you so much for that “spot on”: I felt like I was romance-commenting in the dark, so to speak. But I loved those “glimpses” you speak of and the wit, oh the wit, that comment about books, and some social skewering were wonderful here. It’s just such a delight to find the comfort of a long-running excellent series, even when individual books vary in our enjoyment.


  5. Have mercy! Another series?!? Oh well… Mt. TBR toppled into glorious abandon long ago so a few more won’t even inspire a ripple at this stage. 🙂

    “While romance is the fantasy, to the avowed spinster, this sounds like the ideal marriage: “We spent the rest of the evening in our rooms, wearing pyjama trousers and yukata kimonos, quietly turning the pages of our respective books.” Miss Bates leaves you with this final image of Mary and Sherlock’s companionship and shared purpose: “Safe behind my door, we bathed, Holmes shaved, we ate. When he had reached the tobacco stage, we laid our two books on the table before us, and we talked.” The stuff HEAs are made of …”

    This is wonderful! I’ve often wondered about those HEAs in romance after the thrill of the chase is over and the couple settle down to their mundane and routine life together. Like you, I love the ‘sound and fury’ of romance, but everyday life isn’t all champagne and roses. This passage speaks to a more enduring happiness and contentment.

    Mary Russell and Sherlock may be the ultimate May-December romance. Just the other night I was grumbling about a 17-year age difference between a couple in a Violet Winspear HP. But I now believe I was more bothered by the way the hero would come into the heroine’s bedroom at night to tuck her in and wish her pleasant dreams. It had overtones of a parent/child relationship which creeped me out a little. *shudder*

    I’ve been a fan of those Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books since I was knee high to a grasshopper and, of course, watched each and every episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the fabulous Jeremy Brett so I’m really looking forward to starting this series.

    Interesting that Laurie King incorporates other fictional detectives and mystery writers like Lord Peter Wimsey who makes a cameo in the third book, A LETTER OF MARY, and Dashiel Hammet who appears in #8 LOCKED ROOMS. Reading about the background of the series and your wonderful review has me itching to begin it NOW. I think it’s great how she weaves characters in from Doyle’s books like Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft; Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock’s housekeeper; and Mr. Watson. All of these are excellent reasons to snap my fingers at a TBR threatening to take over my world, but the best part that turned up in my research was a quote attributed to Laurie R. King who describes Mary as “what Sherlock Holmes would look like if Holmes, the Victorian detective, were (a) a woman, (b) of the Twentieth century, and (c) interested in theology.” Pretty cool, I think!

    Thanks for yet another great review and book recommendation.


    1. There were so many gems to the book: King’s is a sharp wit and fine mind. There were some wonderful little quips about “the world is too much with us” that I think you’d going to enjoy much. Yes, the post-HEA world of Russell-and-Holmes is pretty wonderful: tea, books, and adventure. But those little hints of romance, attraction, desire, affection, and tenderness are all the richer for the mundane and serene life they share.

      Your VW novel sounds ick, if you don’t mind me saying so. I HATE the infantilizing of the heroine and it’s not only Ye Olde Skoole romance that does that … it is, sadly, all too often found in the contemporary romantica.

      I didn’t realize that King “peoples” her novels with so many allusions … *clunk* that’s my TBR going over: I’ve only ever read The Sign of Four by Conan Doyle *adds to toppled TBR*


  6. When you decide to tackle THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE (sorry, I forgot how to do the italics), please let me know. I own it, and I’ve been wanting to read it for a while. I’d love to share our impressions as we read!


  7. King has written some wonderful contemporary books as well – the Kate Martinelli series (cop in San Francisco), and Folly is my favourite (woman recovering from mental illness), also love Keeping Watch (mentions child abuse which is usually a no no for me, but she handles it in such a way that I can read it). Folly was actually recommended to me by a therapist and was the first King book I ever read. Devoured all her contemporary ones, then went on to the Russell/Holmes series.


    1. What a wonderful idea: the contemporaries too! I’m excited to read and I greatly appreciate your recommendations, as well as what moved/interested you about them. I feel a devouring coming on myself … now that I’ll be on summer holidays soon too. 🙂


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