Oxford theologian Mary Russell, now living quietly in Sussex with her husband Sherlock Holmes, is thunderstruck with the explosive potential of a document her old acquaintance, amateur archeologist Dorothy Ruskin, brings her from a dig in Palestine: a letter from one Mariam of Magdala identifying herself as an apostle of Jesus. What would the Church say to the possibility of a woman having been a full-fledged apostle? What might the letter do for our understanding of Mary Magdalene? And what to make of the persistently unvoiced parallels between Russell and her storied progenitor? Soon after leaving Russell and Holmes, Dorothy Ruskin is killed in a traffic accident her hosts prove was murder as they fall into a scramble for Miss Ruskin's meager possessionsand into a long, keen disappointment for fans of King's distinctively feminist Sherlockian pastiches (A Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1995, etc.). Plotting has never been King's strong suit (as it never was Conan Doyle's), but, here, her episodic storyRussell and Holmes going as spies into the houses of suspects whose personalities pale before the richness of the inspectors' before allowing Holmes to produce one of his most gratuitous final coupsis surprisingly unworthy of her richly suggestive premise.
Fans will find all of King's accustomed literacy and empathy on display. But, like Amanda Cross, she seems bent this time on crossing the line from the detective story to the discursive essay. Even Holmes is muffled.
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The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.
I leant back in my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped them onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets. The person who had so unceremoniously delivered this grubby interruption moved off across the room, where I heard him sort a series of envelopes chuk-chuk-chuk into the wastepaper basket, then stepped into the front hallway to drop a heavy envelope onto the table there (Mrs Hudson's monthly letter from her son in Australia, I noted, two days early) before coming back to take up a position beside my desk, one shoulder dug into the bookshelf, eyes gazing, no doubt, out the window at the Downs rolling down to the Channel. I replaced the heels of my hands with the backs of my fingers, cool against the hectic flesh, and addressed my husband.
"Do you know, Holmes, I had a great-uncle in Chicago whose promising medical career was cut short when he began to go blind over his books. It must be extremely frustrating to have one's future betrayed by a tiny web of optical muscles. Though he did go on to make a fortune selling eggs and trousers to the gold miners," I added. "Whom is it from?"
"Shall I read it to you, Russell, so as to save youroptic muscles for the metheg and your beloved furtive patach?" His solicitous words were spoilt by the sardonic, almost querulous edge to his voice. "Alas, I have become a mere secretary to my wife's ambitions. Kindly do not snort, Russell. It is an unbecoming sound. Let me see." I felt his arm come across my desk, and I heard the letter whisper as it was plucked up. "The envelope is from the H¶tel Imperial in Paris, a name which contains distinct overtones of sagging mattresses and ominous nocturnal rustling noises in the wardrobe. It is addressed simply to Mary Russell, no title whatsoever. The hand is worthy of some attention. A woman's writing, surely, though almost masculine in the way the fingers grasp the pen. The writer is obviously highly educated, a 'professional woman,' to use the somewhat misleading modern phrase; I venture to say that this particular lady does not depend on her womanliness for a livelihood. Her t's reveal her to be an impatient person, and there is passion in the sweeps of her uprights, yet her s's and a's speak of precision and the lower edge of each line is as exact as it is authoritative. She also either has great faith in the French and English postal systems or else is so self-assured as to consider the insurance of placing her name or room number on the envelope unnecessary. I lean toward the latter theory."
As this analysis progressed, I recovered my glasses, the better to study my companion where he stood in the bright window, bent over the envelope like a jeweller with some rare uncut stone, and I was hit by one of those odd moments of analytical apartness, when one looks with a stranger's eyes on something infinitely familiar. Physically, Sherlock Holmes had changed little since we had first met on these same Sussex Downs a bit more than eight years before. His hair was slightly thinner, certainly greyer, and his grey eyes had become even more deeply hooded, so that the resemblance to some far-seeing, sharp-beaked raptor was more marked than ever. No, his body had only exaggerated itself; the greatest changes were internal. The fierce passions that had driven him in his early years, years before I was even born, had subsided, and the agonies of frustration he had felt when without a challenge, frustration that had led him to needles filled with cocaine and morphia, were now in abeyance. Or so I had thought.
I watched him as his long fingers caressed the much-travelled envelope and his eyes drew significance from every smudge, every characteristic of paper and ink and stamp, and it occurred to me suddenly that Sherlock Holmes was bored.
The thought was not a happy one. No person, certainly no woman, likes to think that her marriage has lessened the happiness of her partner. I thrust the troublesome idea from me, reached up to rub a twinge from my right shoulder, and spoke with a shade more irritation than was called for.
"My dear Holmes, this verges on deductio ad absurdum. Were you to open the envelope and identify the writer, it just might simplify matters."
"All in good time, Russell. I further note a partial set of grimy fingerprints along the back of the envelope, with a matching thumbprint on the front. However, I believe we can discount them, as they have the familiar look of the hands of our very own postal-delivery boy, whose bicycle chain is in constant need of repair."
"Holmes, my furtive patachs await me. The letter?"
"Patience is a necessary attribute of the detective's makeup, Russell. And, I should have thought, the scholar's. However, as you say." He turned away, and the sharp zip of a knife through cheap paper was followed by a dull thud as the knife was reintroduced into the frayed wood of the mantelpiece. There was a thin rustle. His voice sounded amused as he began to read. "'Dear Miss Russell,' it begins, dated four days ago.
Dear Miss Russell, I trust you will not be offended by my form of address. I am aware that you have married, but I cannot bring myself to assign a woman her husband's name unless I have been told that such is her desire. If you are offended, please forgive my unintentional faux pas.
You will perhaps remember me, Dorothy Ruskin, from your visit to Palestine several years ago. I have remained in that land since then, assisting at three preliminary digs until such time as I can arrange funding for my own excavations. I have been called back home for an interview by my potential sponsors, as well as to see my mother, who seems to be on her deathbed. There is a matter of some interest which I wish to lay before you while I am in England, and I would appreciate it if you would allow me to come and disturb your peace for a few hours. It would have to be on the twenty-second or twenty-third, as I return to Palestine directly my business is completed. Please confirm the day and time by telegram at the address below.
I believe the matter to be of some interest and potentially considerable importance to your chosen field of study, or I would not be bothering you and your husband.
Most affectionately yours,
"The address below is that of the Hotel Imperial," Holmes added.
I took the letter from Holmes and quickly skimmed the singular hand that strode across the flimsy hotel paper. "A decent pen, though," I noted absently. "Shall we see her?"
"We? My dear Russell, I am the husband of an emancipated woman who, although she may not yet vote in an election, is at least allowed to see her own friends without male chaperonage."
"Don't be an ass, Holmes. She obviously wants to see both of us, or she would not have written that last sentence. We'll have her for tea, then. Wednesday or Thursday?"
"Wednesday is Mrs Hudson's half day. Miss Ruskin might have a better tea if she came Thursday."
"Thank you, Holmes," I said with asperity. I admit that cooking is not my strong point, but I object to having my nose rubbed in the fact. "I'll write to let her know either day is fine but that Thursday is slightly better. I wonder what she wants."
"Funding for an all-woman archaeological dig, I shouldn't wonder. That would be popular with the British authorities and the Zionists, would it not? And think of the attraction it would have for the pilgrims and the tourists. It's a wonder the Americans haven't thought of it."
"Holmes, enough! Begone! I have work to do."
"Come for a walk."
"Not just now. Perhaps this evening I could take an hour off."
"By this evening, you will be bogged down to the axles in the prophet Isaiah's mud and too irritable to make a decent walking companion. You've been rubbing your bad shoulder for the last forty minutes although it is a warm afternoon, which means you need to get out and breathe some fresh air. Come."
He held out one long hand to me. I looked down at the cramped lines marching across the page, capped my pen, and allowed him to pull me to my feet.