Feb 22

JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘Dreaming Spies’

"King sets up an intriguing mystery, with myriad characters with distinctive personalities coming and going, and the conclusion has satisfying twists to keep the formula from being stale." (Bantam House)

“King sets up an intriguing mystery, with myriad characters with distinctive personalities coming and going, and the conclusion has satisfying twists to keep the formula from being stale.” (Bantam House)

Are detective stories your thing? What about something involving an iconic figure of literature, ninjas, and Japan? Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) of JETAA New South Wales reviews the new mystery novel Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King, the latest in her Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, which is partially set in Japan and delves into Japanese culture quite a bit.

Picking up another person’s work is never easy, especially if you’re continuing a series of stories long after the original, canonical work ended, and in the time since then has become so popular and well-known that it forms part of modern pop culture. This practice is nothing new and is constantly ongoing—after all, witness the prevalence and popularity (or notoriety?) of fan fiction.

A few years back, a mash-up of high and low culture saw the creation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which kicked off a whole slew of other entries such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina…which shows that one way of resurrecting (pun fully intended) a story would be in the vein of a parody. However, rather than an attempt to create something interestingly imaginative (for example, repositioning the Bennet girls from helpless female chattel to arse-kicking women warriors), this genre is more cynically derivative and an attempt to cash into the zeitgeist of the lurching undead—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, will very soon be out in cinemas. Yay?

I haven’t read any of the other mash-up novels, so Dreaming Spies will be the first I’ve tackled of this growing (sub?)genre. Dreaming Spies isn’t a parody by any means, and its legendary figure of choice is one Sherlock Holmes, although the main master sleuth character here is Mary Russell, who in this story universe is the young wife of a decidedly older Holmes. Probably a wise choice, as tackling a character like Holmes would be like dating someone that just come out of a long-term relationship (i.e., someone that comes with a whole lot of baggage).

In this installment, the detective couple discover a rock from the Japanese Imperial Garden had been transplanted into their English home, a reminder of their trip to Japan in which Russell and Holmes are caught up and recruited in a case of international intrigue, extortion and espionage, involving members of the British aristocracy and the Emperor of Japan himself—and, oh, ninjas. The super sleuth couple must bring the villains to justice, as well as prevent the dishonor of the nation of Japan, so pretty high-stakes stuff.

Dreaming Spies is a bit of an odd beastie to read, as there are several concepts one needs to get used to. The perennial bachelor (and possibly asexual) Holmes of the original stories being married is one, although the context of this was probably laid out in the earliest novel. Russell and Holmes’ ability to pick up speaking conversational Japanese is almost a bit too easy to be believed.

However, the freakish level of ingenuity of the two is not as unbelievable as in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, in which I always felt that Holmes possessed an unconscious but annoying smart-arse quality that tested my ability to suspend disbelief. It would, of course, be missing the point to expect somehow a continuation of the sense and sensibility of the original Conan Doyle stories, which King doesn’t do: while obviously some politically incorrect, period-appropriate lines had to be thrown in, the novel feels quite modern somehow.

But a lot of meticulous research into creating the world and backdrop to these novels seems evident—certainly the Japanese culture, locations and language shows a great deal of care. It’s rather odd, though, to see a quintessentially English character being thrown into international, non-European surroundings, speaking Japanese, enjoying an onsen, donning traditional garb of a Buddhist pilgrim and spouting Basho poetry. King is adept at describing vividly the world that she constructed, but it can feel like a travelogue in some parts, although this is later explained as being a necessary process of “acculturizing” the duo.

Apart from this, the intrigue part is well-constructed, actually. Mystery stories will always inevitably follow the same stages when there’s a crime: the investigation, and then the reveal, or maybe the chase, then the reveal and conclusion. King sets up an intriguing mystery, with myriad characters with distinctive personalities coming and going, and the conclusion has satisfying twists to keep the formula from being stale.

The thirteenth entry in a well-established series starring Russell, it’s clear there’s a ready and receptive market for this kind of genre—for example, Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James, continues the lives of the Austen characters of Pride and Prejudice as a mystery series, in which a murder has to be solved before a possibly innocent man is hanged for the crime. For fans of intrigue novels, Dreaming Spies would be more than enough to satisfy and entertain.

For more on Dreaming Spies, click here. For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

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