Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King is the twelfth book in the traditional mystery series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes (available September 4, 2012).
In a strange room in Morocco, Mary Russell is trying to solve a pressing mystery: Who am I? She has awakened with shadows in her mind, blood on her hands, and soldiers pounding on the door. Out in the hive-like streets, she discovers herself strangely adept in the skills of the underworld, escaping through alleys and rooftops, picking pockets and locks. She is clothed like a man, and armed only with her wits and a scrap of paper on which is written a mysterious Arabic phrase. Overhead, warplanes pass ominously north.
Meanwhile, Holmes is pulled by two old friends and a distant relation into the growing war between France, Spain, and the Rif Revolt led by Emir Abd el-Krim, who may be a Robin Hood or a power-mad tribesman.
And thus the action begins. This is the first novel of the series that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The author not only seems to know her subject well, but also is quite capable of creating a compelling background for the story. As for her eye for detail, well, I’ll let the writing do the talking:
I lifted a hand to shade my eyes, and squinted at the view: a dirty, cobbled lane far too narrow for any motorcar. One could have passed an object between opposing windows—had there been windows. I saw only one, higher even than mine, tiny and tightly shuttered. I could see two entranceways off this diminutive alley: One had been painted with brightly colored arabesques, long ago, and comprised a small door inside a larger one, as if the carpenter had learned his craft on castles and cathedrals. The door across from it was a single rectangle, black wood heavily studded with rusty iron circles the size of my thumb-nail. Around them, grubby whitewash, a fringe of grass on the rooflines, chunks of plaster flaking from walls that bulged and slumped.
But, even though Mary Russell can observe her surroundings, she seems unable to see the overall picture of the place:
The knowledge of where was just beyond my grasp, like an elusive name on the tip of one’s tongue. Similarly, how I came to be here. And what had been so urgent it drove me to my feet. Or why I had blood on my hands.
The mystery of where will not take too long to be solved, she’s in the Moroccan city of Fez, but the answers to the rest of her questions will not come easily.
I paused to survey the city before me, nestled in the lap of the hills. Fez was a hortus conclusus writ large, a garden walled around by hills, set about with a myriad of the fountains and streams that define luxury to a desert-dwelling people. Fez was a closed garden composed of ten thousand closed gardens, a mosaic of rooftops built out of a million mosaics, a place complex and hidden, layer upon layer of hidden life.
Despite the breathtaking scenery Mary knows she’s on the run, but from whom and why, she knows not. Her memory is failing her, probably that nasty wound on the head has something to do with it, however her intellect is alive and kicking and that’s exactly what will keep her going until she finds the truth she deserves.
But while she tries to find out her hows and whys, her husband, Sherlock, is trying to discover her whereabouts. He’s just returned to Rabat, where Mary was supposed to be taking part in the shooting of a movie, only to find out that she went missing.
According to the witnesses, while in the desert, a young boy visited her with a message, and she just got up and left, leaving behind nothing but a note that said she was going to Fez. Who was the boy? What did he say to make her give up everything and follow him? And who was it that sent him to her?
Well, the famous detective has no other choice but to follow the only lead that’s come to his attention. So he travels to Fez in search of his ex-apprentice and current wife, a woman who in his own eyes looks more formidable than himself.
His journey will lead him to some old friends and create for him a few new enemies; but at the same time it will provide the reader with the opportunity to learn a little bit about the history of the country (the events take place in 1924), and it will also teach him a couple of things about the famous divide and conquer rule of the European countries that would plague the Arab and the African world for years to come.
Russell and Holmes, as they like to call each other, make a great couple of fighters and investigators, but in my eyes the most important elements in this story are the historical background and the location. There’s plenty of action and quite a few twists and turns, but it is Morocco, with all its beauty and its harshness, that makes this story such a pleasure to read.
As for the rest of the characters—the boy, the rebels, the colonizers, the bandits—they all have something to offer to the plot. And when they turn from guest stars into central figures the action really explodes.
After reading this book I couldn’t help but wonder what this amazing heroine had been up to in the past. If time allows it I will travel back and find out.
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Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese literature, and crime fiction. Follow him on Twitter: @lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.