I am a long-time fan of bestselling author Laurie R. King and have read every novel she’s written. When I learn she has a new novel of any kind coming out, I get really excited. Her fun historical Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, however, is quite special for a number of reasons.
I jumped up and down when I saw that Dreaming Spies was being published because not only is it part of that series but it features a culture that has long fascinated me. Since I know Laurie does meticulous research for her historical mystery novels, I was not only envious of her research trip but I could hardly wait to read Dreaming Spies.
Oh, and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, no worries; Dreaming Spies will read just fine as a stand-alone novel. That said, you might want to read my review of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice first to get an idea of their relationship (link at the bottom of this review).
To make it even better, Laurie’s offered us not one but two copies to feature in our giveaway. If you’re half as much of a fan as I am, you’ve got to be squeeing right now.
‘Yes, Russell, it is a rock. A rather fine rock, would you not agree? An almost…Japanese sort of rock?’
I turned my eyes from husband to granite intruder…In the spring, it would almost disappear beneath Mrs. Hudson’s peonies.
Almost disappear. As it was almost Japanese…it had definitely not been there when I left for Portugal the previous November.
‘It was most peculiar.’ Mrs. Hudson’s voice sounded almost apologetic. ‘These four Oriental gentlemen drove up in a lorry, and…the older one marched back here to look at the terrace…asked me what color my peonies were. It’s beyond me how he knew there were peonies at all. He was polite, you understand, but a little…quiet.’
We both turned sharply to look at her.
‘Did he threaten you?’ Holmes demanded.
‘I suppose. Although honestly, it was only his nature, not in the least aimed at us…’”
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are headed off to California. Mary’s been putting off dealing with some family business much too long and can’t delay it any longer. Because they’ve been so busy, they decide it’s a great opportunity for them to take time to vacation and see some of the world along the way. After all, if they’re going to be stuck on a ship until they get to California then they might as well enjoy themselves along the way.
Mary and Holmes’ stop in Bombay, while working on a case for his brother, Mycroft, is finally concluded and they’re looking forward to setting off on the Thomas Carlyle, a steam-powered cruise ship. The ship is getting ready to depart Bombay for Kobe, Japan and Mary can hardly wait. They’ve planned a longer stay in Japan so they can get to know the culture and its people, and they’ve both been really looking forward to it. Mary is particularly looking forward to finally being in a country Holmes has never visited. For once, she will know as much about something as he does and that will be a welcome change.
The ship is ready to depart when last-minute passengers arrive, Lord Darley and his family. Holmes is practically scowling since he suspects Darley of being a blackmailer to support his lavish lifestyle, although Holmes admits nothing has ever been proven. Just as Mary prepares to remind Holmes that this is supposed to be a vacation, not a case, another late passenger hurries aboard, a young Japanese woman. Mary gives up on keeping Holmes from seeking out ways to trap Darley at his alleged game – at least it will keep him occupied. Although she does have to remind him that they are traveling incognito so he needs to be careful not to give himself away – as if he ever would.
“’Well, have you any reason to think Darley is still active? Either on his own or working for some other blackmailer?’
‘Again, not that I’ve heard.’
‘I should think you would have.’ For both personal and professional reasons. Holmes detested blackmailers with a passion reserved for no other wrongdoer;…There was no doubt in my mind that any rumor of Darley’s continuing activities would have caught his attention.
‘It is possible.’
‘This is all the more reason to make certain we’re not seated at the Captain’s table,’ I said.
‘What if they are only going as far as Colombo?’
I prayed they would. But then I realized what that would mean. ‘Oh, please don’t tell me you want to follow them off.’ I pleaded.”
Meanwhile Mary is becoming intrigued with the young Japanese woman, Haruki Sato, who followed the Darley family onboard. Haruki keeps appearing near where Mary is quietly reading on deck, quoting haiku and being generally enigmatic. Finally Mary’s curiosity gets the better of her and, as they begin to talk, Mary becomes intrigued by this well-educated young woman who grew up in a family of acrobats.
Haruki agrees to tutor Mary and Holmes in simple Japanese phrases and cultural norms that will prevent them as much as possible from giving offense while in Japan. As soon as other people onboard hear about these private lessons, Haruki and other Japanese women from the ship’s lower-level passenger cabins are persuaded to hold classes for the first-class cabin passengers. It not only passes the time during the long voyage but it is quite entertaining and educational for everyone.
As Mary and Holmes get to know Haruki better, they both sense there is more to her than meets the eye but can’t quite put their collective finger on what that means. Mary in particular is convinced Haruki is hiding something important. It’s almost as if she is testing them as she teaches them, but why? That oddness, along with the tension of Holmes’ insistence on pursuing the suspected blackmailer on board, and odd ghost sightings, lead to disturbing dreams Mary can’t shake no matter how much her rational mind wants to do so.
When the ship finally docks in Japan, Haruki proposes a challenge and adventure for Mary and Holmes to see how well they have mastered what she taught them; a final exam, as it were. Can they pose as lowly foreign pilgrims, with almost no money and with only a few rudimentary phrases, while making the trek from their comfortable hotel out into the countryside and up a mountain to Haruki’s family inn – and can they do it in the time set? It’s like a double-dog-dare-you to a little kid, so of course they can’t resist the challenge! The great Holmes could never pass up an adventure like this that pits his intellect against so many unknowns, and neither could Mary – are you kidding?
And the carrot at the end of that challenge’s stick? Haruki promises if they are able to reach the inn at the precise time on the precise date determined then her secret will be revealed. Mary and Holmes will follow the legendary 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s path as they wander through 1920’s Japan, adhering strictly to the rules imposed and careful not to cheat while digging deep to find clever ways to survive the trip and pass Haruki’s test. They know this test is not some whim to see if tourists have learned their lessons well but a more rigorous test of who they are at their core, what they value, and how far they are willing to go to submerse themselves into the culture and show their respect for it.
But what is so important that Haruki would pose such a test for them? And what is Haruki’s secret? Who is the mysterious boss she refuses to name, who they must pass the test to meet? What have they gotten themselves into this time? Well one thing is clear, Haruki and her family are not simple acrobats. The game is afoot for real.
I’m not going to talk about the characters in this novel to avoid spoilers. No one is who or what they appear to be. As for the elements that weave throughout this novel, we’ve got blackmail as mentioned but this is not just any old everyday kind of blackmail. Then there is espionage along with potential international incidents, political intrigue, other crimes of several kinds, a murder or two, burglary, and a few other things I’m dying to tell you about but can’t without spoiling everything.
From my synopsis, Dreaming Spies may seem to only take place on-board ship and in Japan; however, it is bookended with equally suspenseful elements in Oxford. Even Mary’s beloved Bodleian Library and her neighbor, Miss Pidgeon, who Holmes calls her Irregular, make appearances. The story thread is much more reminiscent of traditional Sherlock Holmes stories than some in this series, and it benefits greatly from that.
If I had to give the elevator speech for Dreaming Spies, I’d say it is a classic Sherlock Holmes adventure puzzle that pays homage to the amazing culture of Japan. You might ask, “What do you mean, puzzle?” I always think of Sherlock Holmes mysteries as puzzles because of their intricacy and the need to pull so many pieces together to solve them. I do want to emphasize though that Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are very much equal partners in solving this puzzle.
Dreaming Spies contains layers upon layers of hidden pieces, like a multi-dimensional chess game. That is part of what makes it so much fun to read. The other thing I have to call out is how well Laurie King makes 1920’s Japan come to life. I felt like I had literally been transported there, all while sitting in my favorite armchair, and I have to thank her for that amazing armchair adventure! Am I recommending Dreaming Spies? You betcha!
Can’t wait to read it?
Dreaming Spies was published on February 17, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click the button link and go get it to read now!
I’d love to get your comments on Dreaming Spies, Laurie R. King or her other work, and/or this review.
Want to read more reviews of novels from the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series? Click here for our review of Beekeeping for Beginners and click herehere for our review of The Pirate King. Click here for our review of The Bones of Paris (a stand-alone thriller that takes place in the Roaring 20’s).
If you like this review, please contribute to our Reviewers’ Caffeine Fund in the left column. Just a cup a day, that’s all we ask.
Two lucky readers will each win one copy of Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 3/7/2015, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
2) This giveaway is open to entries with U.S. mailing addresses only because we do not ship books outside of the U.S. Please note: Because the publisher will ship these books directly to winners, the publisher will be given the winner’s shipping address.
3) You must be at least 15 years old to enter this giveaway.
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7) That’s it – it’s a very easy giveaway, so have fun and best of luck!