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Riviera Gold by Laurie R. King
The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

I just read recent installments in two of my favorite mystery series, written by women and featuring strong women protagonists. Both series have unusual relationships at their core.

Riviera Gold - Laurie R King

In Riviera Gold, Mary Russell, the much younger wife of an aging (but almost unbelievably fit) Sherlock Holmes, is drawn into a mystery involving Holmes’ former housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. We’re ushered into the high society of Monte Carlo and the artists’ colony that flourished on the Riviera between the world wars. (There’s even a cameo appearance by Picasso.)

Laurie R. King has breathed new life into the Sherlock Holmes tradition, creating early-twentieth-century problems for Conan Doyle’s late-nineteenth-century icon—and an adept female detective (Mary) who is the equal of her famous husband. No matter where her characters uncover crimes—from England to Japan—King artfully includes details of time, place, people, and everyday life, from cars to clothes to cocktails. Reading this series is an immersive experience, and I typically search for more information about the setting and/or the historical characters; for Riviera Gold, it was Monte Carlo and Gerald and Sara Murphy.

There’s that hard-to-accept age difference, though, between Mary (she’s about 25, and was 15 when she first met Holmes) and her husband (who seems to be hovering in his sixties). In Riviera Gold, I detected (!) more of Mary’s irritation with Holmes than usual (that sense of superiority is a well-established aspect of the Holmes tradition), and I thought she might have been drifting into something more than friendship with one of her sailing companions. But, in the end, Mary happily tumbled into bed with Holmes when he appeared on the scene. King (in Mary’s voice as first-person narrator) tries to sell the sizzle between the couple, but I’m always of two minds about it. Is it sexy? Or cringe-y? I can never decide…and I guess it’s their business, right? (Yes, I know they’re fictional.)

Elly Griffiths’ series follows the crime-related exploits of forensic archeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway as she works with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson in Norfolk, England. In The Lantern Men, Ruth has moved away from Norfolk; she’s teaching at Cambridge University and living nearby with tween daughter Kate and new-ish partner Frank. But a prisoner convicted of two murders requests that Ruth return to Norfolk to oversee a dig to uncover more bodies, ostensibly because she’s the best in her field.

Working with Nelson again brings back feelings that Ruth has tried to tamp down; they’ve had a few liaisons over the years, and he is Kate’s father. Try as she might, Ruth is still attracted to Nelson—and Nelson still has feelings for Ruth that go beyond his fatherly obligations to Kate. But Nelson is also a very traditional husband and father to two adult daughters and a toddler boy. And Kate’s parentage has been revealed to Nelson’s wife Michelle and his daughters, who acknowledge Kate as family member. (The circle of people who know about Nelson and Ruth and Kate expands a bit more with each successive installment in the series. ) Nelson doesn’t really want to disrupt his family life; Ruth suspects she could never happily “be” with Nelson. And yet.

There’s an engrossing mystery to be solved in The Lantern Men, involving a charismatic artist and his followers and a legend of “lantern men” who come out of the mists to guide those lost on the Norfolk marshes. Beneath, though, there’s the tension of the Ruth/Nelson relationship: an independent woman and a fairly conservative man for whom sparks inevitably fly whenever they’re together, who—between their daughter and their work—can’t help coming into each other’s orbit. This mystery will not be solved easily.