Killing The Mentor Without Killing The Mentor

Garment of Shadows, Laurie King’s twelfth Mary Russell mystery, comes out early next month. And I’ve seen at least one comment from a fan “hoping Sherlock Holmes will play a larger role in this one, since he was offstage so much in the last one.”

Which made me think the fan didn’t quite understand what was going on here.

I’ve similarly seen more than one negative review of the series or Mary Russell as a character framed as “it’s ridiculous that Holmes’  wife is a better detective than he is.” Which also suggests a gap between the review and reality. Because yes, that would be lame if it were true. It’s not. It’s very much not.

The reason it’s not is the same reason Holmes has been offscreen more than onscreen consistently since book one. Russell isn’t a better detective than he is. He’s still the senior partner, and when he’s onstage, he overshadows her completely. I can’t think of any circumstance in which a disagreement in deduction or strategy ended with her being right and him being wrong. If the beekeeper is present, Russell is still the beekeeper’s apprentice.

Hence the structure, which goes out of its way to separate them as much as possible. In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, they quarrel and then Russell is kidnapped, so she has most of the plot to herself and Holmes only comes in for the finale. In A Letter of Mary, they pursue separate lines of inquiry (and don’t miss that hers, although lovingly detailed, leads nowhere, while Holmes’, conducted completely offstage, leads to the solution). The Moor puts them together again, but The Moor also has an ongoing theme of Russell feeling like Holmes’ appendage (the locals nickname her “Sherlock Mary,” and she expresses her hatred of that quite eloquently), and I personally found The Moor the least compelling book of them all. O Jerusalem is a flashback, nested within Beekeeper, so they play master and apprentice there; Justice Hall has Russell pursuing a trans-atlantic investigation on her own after Holmes is beaten up by adversaries and needs time to recover; The Game has them once again pursuing different lines of investigation, and we only see Russell’s.

Locked Rooms gives us Holmes’ perspective for the first time, and he’s onstage a fair bit, but he conducts his investigation solo, not with her, and don’t miss that he solves the whole damn thing. Sure, there are reasons that she’s off her game, but… The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive separate Our Heroic Couple for most of the action; The Pirate King sends Russell on ahead for a solo adventure and then after dropping Holmes into the middle of it, kidnaps him, and the rest of the action is Russell’s to stage-manage.

These aren’t Sherlock Holmes mysteries. They haven’t been since Beekeeper. These are Mary Russell mysteries. To make sure they are Mary Russell mysteries, King consistently incapacitates, kidnaps, or diverts Holmes to a separate investigation.

It’s hard to know what else she could do, honestly, because Holmes is an overwhelming character. He attracts every eye of every room he’s in, not to mention all the reader’s attention, and the idea of Russell outdoing him as a detective is too Mary-Sue to contemplate. Killing the mentor to allow the student to come into her own is obviously not an option either—the fan base would become a lynch mob. Honestly, I think King did herself a disservice with the marriage that closes Monstrous. Not only because the bride is twenty-one and the groom fifty-nine at the time of that event, and not only (although mostly) because Beekeeper used the words “father” and “child” about five hundred times to describe the two of them, and ick. I’d have rather seen Russell get together with someone else—Damian, perhaps, for the symmetry?—or no one at all and hare off after mystery upon mystery  by herself, once or twice a book stopping in to consult her old mentor.

Given the constraint of the monstrous marriage, however, King is handling her universe in the best possible way. Holmes is still the king of his profession. Russell is still his most promising successor, and when he’s not in the room, the brightest light in it. King’s technique for killing the mentor without actually killing the mentor is masterful—one masterstroke of many. When you think about the stack of improbabilities upon which the Russell books are built (she’s a brilliant Oxford-educated half-American half-Cockney-Jewish heiress; he’s Sherlock Holmes; together, they fight crime)  it is astonishing to contemplate how well the things work. They vibrate with wit, each character deftly drawn, setting after different setting real enough to taste. That’s a master, folks. Hats off.

Comments (6)

DennisAugust 1st, 2012 at 11:13 am

Dunno how applicable it is, but it’s telling to note that Gandalf is absent for long stretches of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, since his presence would prevent the heroes from achieving necessary growth. Of course Tolkien actually does kill him in tLotR–but he does get better.

HeatherAugust 1st, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Yeah, same sort of thing. And he’s also kidnapped, IIRC.

Ken SchneyerAugust 8th, 2012 at 11:02 pm

I’ve not read these books, but it seems to me that King created a huge problem for herself that she has to solve over and over again — increasingly contrived ways to get the Great Detective out of the picture so that the Lesser Detective can have the fun.

It’s somewhat similar to the stubborn unwillingness of Harry, Ron & Hermione to confide in Dumbledore during their moments of greatest trial — I got so frustrated I wanted to scream at the page, because it was the *obvious* thing to do, but it was the one thing Rowling couldn’t *let* her characters do, because then the story would come to an end. By Book Five it had become ridiculous, so Harry begins to confide in Dumbledore in Book Six, just in time for [spoiler avoided]. Actually, as someone was saying recently (at one of our meetings?) in YA you always need to get the adults out of the picture somehow, or there’s no story…

HeatherAugust 9th, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Yeah, that, pretty much.

Delphi PsmithSeptember 11th, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Great article! It is a “stack of improbabilities,” isn’t it? But such delicious ones and so craftily piled up that we don’t mind.

Personally my favorite bit is the one where they have to rescue the little girl; Holmes and Russell seem very equal partners there. He trust her to act on her own, she does some things that he can’t (connecting emotionally with the little girl afterwards, in particular). I hope that eventually the “dead” mentor will be resurrected more frequently and that we’ll see them in a closer partnership. Given her increasing strength and confidence, I think he could be on-stage without overshadowing her.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve been reading through the posts on GoodReads’ Q&A for Laurie R. King and one of the threads is, “Is Mary Russell a Mary Sue?” The overwhelming consensus is “No!” (of course) but nobody mentioned this particular argument of Holmes’ absence. Yes, she falls in love with him and they get married, but that was never her main objective, as it so often is with Mary Sues (every man falls at her feet, etc.).

HeatherSeptember 12th, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Delphi –

Hi, and thanks! Yeah, I read that Goodreads thread too, with great interest, and appreciated the many “no” votes. Honestly, I find it a little irritating when every awesome female character written by a female author is dismissed as a Mary Sue – original definition aside, the label now seems to be applied to characters who are good at too many things, or who are liked by too many other characters, or who are ostracized by too many other characters, or whose past stories are too perfect, or whose past stories are too tragic, or whose faults are for some reason considered inadequate, or something. There was a post a while back that covered it better than I could have:

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