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Mysteries

My Dear Watson, It's Matrimony

April 24, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes continue to inspire an apparently ceaseless flow of what in TV-land would be labeled spinoffs--adventures featuring each of the great detective's supporting players, from Dr. Watson down to the once-mentioned bloodhound Toby. Of these additions, none is quite as audacious as Laurie R. King's series on the detective's wife, Mary Russell, the sixth of which is "Justice Hall" (Bantam, 337 pages, $23.95).

The audacity stems from the fact that Doyle made no mention of a wife. Rather, his cerebral sleuth was famously indifferent to such a union (save for one chaste fling) if not a closet misogynist. King adds to the odds against matrimony by portraying Russell as an ultra-modern woman (for her day), as difficult and opinionated as Holmes and young enough to be his granddaughter.

She's only 15 when they meet in 1994's "The Beekeeper's Apprentice," which is set in 1915. King tells us that Holmes is in his 50s, but in Doyle's "His Last Bow," set in precisely the same time frame, he was then "a tall, gaunt man of 60." Mary Russell has barely reached her majority when they fall in love in "A Monstrous Regiment of Women." Their next two novels, "A Letter to Mary" and "The Moor," set in 1923-24, have them settled down to wedded life in Sussex, but book five, "O Jerusalem," carries them back to 1919, when, still unmarried, they journey to British-occupied Palestine on spy business.

"Justice Hall," which places the couple in post-"Moor" 1923, is closely tied to that Holy Land adventure. They discover that the two vividly rendered Arab guides on that perilous trip, Ali and Mahmoud, are, in reality, British noble-born cousins named Alistair and Marsh, working for Holmes' brother, Mycroft. They now seek Sherlock's help with a family matter concerning heirs and duties of succession.

The mystery element is as complex as the titular estate is vast, involving a World War I military execution for cowardice in France, birth claims, skulduggery and, of course, murder. But strangely, the fun here doesn't come from the unraveling of whodunit, nor from the incredible deductions of the great detective. This is Mary Russell's show and whether the remarkably capable lady is describing the interior of castles and estates, explaining the rules of succession, putting up with the pettiness of the upper classes and the vulgarity and deceit of the lower, stalking evildoers or simply making do without the crime-solving aid of her often-absent spouse, she is never less than fascinating company.

Sex, Murder, Mayhem and Hidden Treasure

Les Standiford's "Bone Key" (Putnam, 319 pages, $24.95) begins with a ship sinking off Key West in a storm in 1931. As soon as its mysterious cargo is transferred to a safe place on shore, a killer, trusting in the bromide that dead men tell no tales, begins to bump off all the boat hands. Before he fully completes his task, Mother Nature intervenes with a torrent and flood that enables a sole seaman to escape. It shouldn't give away too much of the plot to say that the survivor is still around in 2002 to fill series hero John Deal in on the homicidal happening of long ago.

Deal and one of his associates, Russell Straight, have traveled from his stamping grounds in Miami to Key West for a business meeting with a powerful contractor who's pretty much the king of the Keys. The meeting is delayed when Deal and Straight stop a redneck cop from stomping a young street hustler to death and get thrashed and thrown in jail for their trouble. Bailed out by the contractor, they barely begin talking shop when Deal discovers that his long-ago first love is the big man's mistress. From there, it's a brief sprint to edgy sex, murder, mayhem and a hidden treasure worth a fortune.

Florida crime writers seem to fall into one of two categories--the Carl Hiaasen school, in which over-the-top satire sometimes sinks the suspense, and the school that slavishly duplicates John D. MacDonald's mixture of unabashed heroism, ultra-sick villainy and wistful nostalgia for the state's pre-greedhead days. Standiford, while in the MacDonald camp, wisely eschews the late author's cynicism for contemporary life and concentrates more on keeping his hero real while putting him through Travis McGee-like paces.

In "Bone Key," Deal is punched, kicked, shot at, partially concussed and tossed through glass windows and still has the stamina for romance and retribution. But the reader is continually reminded that he is more earthbound than the usual superhero. Estranged from his wife, he has a young daughter who is never far from his thoughts and he seems unable to escape the shadow of a larger-than-life father whose sway over him remains undiminished by death.

The other prominent characters are well-rounded, too, particularly the powerful and laconic Straight. At book's end, it seems that Deal will be leaving him behind in Key West, but Standiford, the director of the creative writing program at Florida International University, knows what works in fiction and it likely won't be long before the two are pairing up again.

*

Dick Lochte, the author of the prize-winning novel "Sleeping Dog" and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other Wednesday.

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