Miss 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.