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Pirate King

November 28, 2011

So far I have been happily diverted by every one of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and going all the way up to number eleven, Pirate King.

It was thrilling to find out that it does involve the character whose song is in my head every time I look at the title! The story is based on a production of The Pirates of Penzance and there are quotations at the beginning of each chapter—I believe my favorite is at Chapter Thirty-Nine, the moment of greatest suspense: “With cat-like tread,/ Upon our prey we steal;/ In silence dread/ Our cautious way we feel.”

Part of the fun is how Mary Russell, who feels she is always one step behind Sherlock Holmes, figures out what is happening and the reader, who feels she is always one stop behind Mary Russell, pieces it together more slowly. When Mary begins her undercover job working for one of the producers of a movie based on the operetta but without music and with English girls and Moroccan pirates from Portugal, it is all gloriously and endlessly confusing, until she has a conversation that clears it all up:

“Mr. Hale, you’re making a film about a film about pirates. Unsuccessful Victorian pirates from fifty years ago, not blood-thirsty African pirates three hundred years in the past. And from Penzance, not Sale. Why on earth don’t you just film the thing in Penzance?”
“Because at some point real pirates enter the scene, and they are based in Morocco.”
“But if you are telling a story about some people telling a story, why not just construct a fake-African studio? Which, since you’re after realism, is what your fictional film company would have done, in any event.” Real realism about realistic verisimilitude…
“As I said, Pirate King is about a film crew that is making a picture—which is also called Pirate King—about The Pirates of Penzance.”

Well, that makes it as clear as it’s going to get, while Mary is “ensnared in a make-believe world.” By the end of the story, of course, she manages to free herself and help direct the course of events in the real world, where piracy doesn’t consist solely of hijacking ships.

There are some lovely moments between the married couple, as usual. My favorite is when part of Mary’s cover story involves describing Holmes, who is undercover as the Major-General, as a shipboard lecher and he has to dance with a woman who “had caught word of the Major-General’s purported lechery and intended to make the most of it.” When Mary catches a glimpse of him, his “face was priceless, keen with interest on the surface, alive with apprehension underneath.” I think I’ve seen Ron’s face like that before, and I’m sure it was my fault, too.

There is much guessing about how fierce the pirates are, including an almost Gilbert and Sullivan-like interlude during which “those who initially had no objection to paint were brought to task by those who ridiculed and refused,” the make-up woman is faced with pirates who “might well have broken her fingers” but are finally led by one who allows her to apply “her brushes to his stormy face.”

The final pleasure of seeing this hopeless tangle of truth and fiction sorted out is a throw-away line by Holmes:
“Never mind,” he said. “I’ve spent much of my life being thought of as a fiction. One grows accustomed to it.”

If you’ve liked the Mary Russell novels, you won’t be disappointed by this one. It’s amazing, really, that she’s kept the series going this well for this long. What other series do you know that has gone on for eleven books with no real duds?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2011 7:35 am

    I loved the first two Mary Russell novels and really need to read more of them. And yes, the absence of duds really is impressive! My favourite series is Discworld, but even that has a book or two I could do without.

    • Carol Schumacher permalink
      November 28, 2011 10:59 am

      Nymeth: My favorite of the Mary Russell Books is probably “Justice Hall.” But I agree with Jeanne that they are all really fun.

  2. freshhell permalink
    November 28, 2011 9:26 am

    I’ve never read any of these but I do like detectives that reappear – Grimes’ Richard Jury, Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, James’ Adam Dalgliesh, etc.

    Having little knowledge of musical theatre (I’m familiar with PoP, but only a little), some of the references may go right over my head.

    • November 29, 2011 9:01 am

      Actually, I think King does a good job of providing lots of context for the references, so people who don’t know the comic opera will understand the actions of the plot by seeing bits of the opera played out.

  3. November 28, 2011 1:11 pm

    I have only read the first in this series, and really need to get back on it! I really enjoyed the book, but just haven’t continued on with the series. I am glad there are no duds 🙂

    • November 29, 2011 9:02 am

      The first one is fun because it introduces the situation, but the next few are fun because they have room to play with the conventions and expand them.

  4. PAJ permalink
    November 28, 2011 7:02 pm

    This is on my “wish” list of books. It sounds like fun. You’re right; there are no duds in this series, and I can’t think of anyone who has maintained the quality as well as Laurie King.

    • November 29, 2011 9:03 am

      I think she loves these characters, and since she loves them, she wants to do right by them anytime she involves them in anything.

  5. November 29, 2011 8:12 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this! I’ve seen some people express disappointment, but I thought it was a hoot. And I totally agree that the series as a whole is remarkably consistent–and without ever reverting to formula.

    • November 30, 2011 7:59 am

      It’s easy to entertain me by bringing in musical theater! I think that’s what she’s doing instead of a formula–thinking of period-appropriate episodes that would be fun for these characters.

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