Long live the detective novel, done well.
I’ve spent the weekend in 1924 Morocco, an occasionally harrowing but continually captivating sojourn, courtesy of Laurie R. King’s latest Mary Russell novel, Garment of Shadows.
The research that King must devote to her books is mind-boggling. It’s easy to forget you are reading a mystery (Mary Russell is Sherlock Holmes’ young wife, in this excellent Holmes pastiche) and believe, instead, that this is an actual first-person account by an exotic adventurer, in all its specific detail. One small example, as Russell approaches a storefront in the Fez medina:
“It was, unusually for Fez, a shop of mixed goods, displaying a few sprouted onions and wilted greens, a teetering pyramid of mismatched tins with many dents but few labels, a bowl of straw-speckled eggs, rounds of bread that looked a day or three old, some copper bowls, a row of dusty glasses, and a few twists of paper spilling the deep orange of dried chili peppers.”
Beyond all the material details, however, are the political ones, of the intrigue surrounding an impending war between the Berbers of the Rif Mountains and their Spanish occupiers—and the roles played by imperial France and England in that conflict. King deftly embeds Russell and Holmes into the action, providing background information so smoothly that suddenly you know, of course, that the Berbers are quite different from the Arabs of southern Morocco, and that, of course, the Werghal River should be the demarcation point between French and Spanish Morocco, rather than some arbitrary 1912 treaty border.
Russell is recovering from amnesia for most of the book, allowing readers to recall past exploits of detection and derring-do along with her. This is the thirteenth book in a series that began almost two decades ago, so there is much that I, too, only dimly remember. I am in awe of King’s overarching design for the series, which jumps forward and backward in time (in the period from 1915 to, so far, 1924) and features a number of recurring characters and complicated plot points.
In the way of strange coincidences, I read a travel article today about nightlife in Casablanca (2012 marking the seventieth anniversary of the film Casablanca, I’ve come across a few Casablanca-themed articles). Coastal Casablanca is quite distinct from inland Fez and the Rif Mountains, certainly—but, still, that’s a lot of Morocco in one weekend. I could have sworn I’d never read another novel set in Morocco. But when Russell overhears some American tourists discussing a visit to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, I flashed back to other, more contemporary, tourists who visit a Roman amphitheater in Morocco and come under a frightening attack. The book? Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakesh.
See Laurie R. King’s Pinterest board for glimpses of Morocco