Booked and Printed
Robert C. Hahn
Authors create their heroes, but that doesn’t always mean that they control their fate. Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill Sherlock Holmes, only to reverse course and reanimate his hero due to popular demand. Ed McBain tried to kill Steve Carella in Cop Hater, the very first in his 87th Precinct series, but his editors complained that he was too important a character to kill off. McBain relented and Carella continued to appear as a central character for decades more. Margaret Maron has decided that her popular hero, Judge Deborah Knott, will no longer be featured in her mysteries. Deborah Knott retired at the top of her game, and Maron seems adamant that her decision is final.
Now Laurie R. King, who has reinvigorated the Holmes canon with fourteen Mary Russell novels beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice in 1994, threatens to end her series with The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam, $28).
King is a marvelous storyteller and while Mary Russell is the main character created for this series, King has also added considerably to the life and adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Now she tackles in brilliant fashion the backstory of Clara Hudson. Hudson was, of course, a constant presence in the Baker Street residence of Holmes and Watson in Doyle’s stories, but her role was minor if not menial.
For those unfamiliar with Laurie King’s series, Holmes and Russell now occupy a home in Sussex with Mrs. Hudson still, at age 69, providing housekeeping services for the couple. Russell is the only one home when a man calling himself Samuel Hudson shows up and takes Mary by surprise with a gun. Then Mrs. Hudson returns home to an empty house in disarray and “a terrible amount of blood” on the floor.
Russell’s fate remains unknown as King launches into the enthralling story of Clara’s—Clarissa’s—parentage and childhood. It’s a story that begins with the romance of Sally Rickets and James Hudson, a sailor and con man. Hudson falls under the sway of a criminal kingpin called the Bishop, only to flee from him by shipping out on the barque Gloria Scott.
The family is eventually reunited in Australia, but when Sally dies in childbirth, ten-year-old Clarissa and younger sister Alicia are left in the care of their sporadically employed father, who soon discovers that Clarissa is a perfect foil for his criminal activities.
Clarissa was an apt pupil in learning the “cheats”—the various con games her father employed—and on returning to London, her relationship with the Bishop and her clever rise beyond those petty games leads eventually to a meeting with Sherlock Holmes under less than auspicious circumstances.
It is up to Sherlock to read the signs left in the house by the confrontation between Mary Russell and Samuel Hudson that will reveal Russell’s fate. Chalk up another excellent mystery from Laurie R. King that builds both Russell’s legend and expands the story of Doyle’s characters.
Walter Mosley told me in an interview published in Publishers Weekly that his best-known hero Easy Rawlins was unlikely to survive a car crash in 2007’s Blonde Faith. But Easy did survive (thankfully), and after a six-year hiatus, he reappeared in 2013’s Little Green, followed by Rose Gold.
Easy’s adventures continue in Charcoal Joe (Doubleday, $26.95) as the sleuth and favor-trader reaches the momentous year 1968 when the country is roiled by the Vietnam War, assassinations, and civil unrest.
Virtually all of the many memorable characters—and it’s a large group—from this series return in Charcoal Joe in roles ranging from cameo appearances to major support. Deadly Ray “Mouse” Alexander gets Easy involved with Charcoal Joe, a k a Rufus Tyler, a man so lethal a friend tells Easy that “Joe was Mouse before there was a Mouse.”
Tyler is old and in prison now. He wants to hire Easy to prove that the son of a friend, Dr. Seymour Brathwaite, a physicist doing postgraduate work at UCLA, is not a killer, despite being found at the scene of a double murder.
Neither Tyler nor Seymour will tell Easy everything they know; even Seymour’s foster mother Jasmine is tight lipped. When three men break into Easy’s house while no one is home, Easy is sure the break-in is connected to Seymour’s problem. So Easy calls on a variety of friends and allies for help, including Fearless Jones, who provides needed muscle when things get tough; bail bondsman Milo Sweet; and the wondrous and fearsome Mama Jo, who’s brought a little bayou magic to Los Angeles. Cop Melvin Suggs provides the information that one of the dead men was into money laundering and that a fortune disappeared when he was killed. So, if Easy wants to help Seymour he needs to find the money.
As always the ever-present stain of racism colors the pages as Easy straddles two conflicting worlds, as he struggles to find a way to save Seymour without sacrificing his principles or his life. But no one negotiates these two worlds better than Easy as he deals with cops and thugs; beautiful, dangerous women and brutal, dangerous men.
One mystery writer and his hero who are riding high in every respect are Craig Johnson and Sheriff Walt Longmire. The Wyoming sheriff has starred in eleven novels since he debuted in 1994’s The Cold Dish, including a critically acclaimed television series that began on A&E and now appears on Netflix.
Longmire’s most recent outing, The Highwayman (Viking, $20), is a ghost story and a good one. The highway through Wind River Canyon in Wyoming passes through three living-rock tunnels and was the scene of a shootout between Bobby Womack, the first Arapaho trooper in the state, and two thieves who had stolen more than a thousand rare coins—the 1888-O Morgan silver dollars. Womack shot and killed both men, but the coins were never recovered and suspicion fell on Womack despite his sterling reputation.
Womack died a mere six months later in a suicidal attempt to stop a runaway fuel tanker.
Now, thirty-five years later, Trooper Rosey Wayman is responsible for that same stretch of road, and she is hearing a strange post-midnight radio transmission: “Unit 3, 10-78, officer needs assistance.” The voice is that of Bobby Womack. Wayman has also found two of the rare coins, and both were associated with an unusual incident.
Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear volunteer to help and join Wayman on patrol. Longmire also contacts retired trooper Mike Harlow, who succeeded Womack, to hear his stories.
It’s an absorbing story that brings to life both Wyoming’s unique geology and its unique inhabitants, as Longmire searches for an answer to the mysterious transmissions and reappearance of the silver dollars.