Island of the Mad
I’ve been a huge fan of the Mary Russell series since The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which came out almost twenty-five years ago. After fourteen books, and five novellas, Mary Russell’s world is well developed, and definitely something I can highly recommend to historical mystery fans. While I enjoyed this most recent addition, it’s not my favorite in the series.
For those that aren’t familiar with the novels, Mary Russell was a recently-orphaned teenager when she first met a retired Sherlock Holmes in the country as he was tracking the movement of bees across the Sussex Downs. Intrigued by her intelligence and fast thinking, Sherlock takes Mary as an apprentice, teaching her his methods of deduction. The entire series follows Mary and Sherlock as she becomes more of a partner, first in deduction and then in marriage – and yes there’s a large age gap (she’s early twenties, he’s early fifties by the time of this book) but it works.
Mary, now operating fairly independently of her husband, has been called upon for help from her old school friend Ronnie, who is searching for her missing aunt. To make things more interesting, Ronnie’s aunt, Lady Vivian, has actually gone missing from Bedlam, where she has received mental care for ages. After a planned trip home to visit family, Vivian never returned to the hospital, disappearing with her nurse. After a visit both to Ronnie’s family home (as an investigator) and to Bedlam (as a patient), Mary grabs Sherlock for a trip to Venice go continue the hunt.
Once in Venice, though, Mary and Sherlock spend most of their trip apart. Mary spends most of her time with the more flashy crowd while Sherlock, on a semi-secret mission from Mycroft, looks in on the fascist following of Mussolini. The two storylines felt too separate, though. Both characters are in Venice, but there’s little interaction between them, and that takes away a large part of what makes this series so magical.
Things do come together, however, as the disparate investigations continue, which definitely brings a fun ending to the story. I’m not going to give it away, but let’s just say this 1925 adventure includes a cameo appearance by Cole Porter…
Unfortunately, I did have other issues with this story, mainly that it drags quite badly throughout. More than once I got the impression that the author was so determined to get the setting and the history right, she dropped the ball regarding the plot and kind of forgot it still needed to move on.
Though not the strongest in the series, one can see what the author was trying to achieve. It’s just too bad it didn’t hit the mark. You should definitely read the Mary Russell books, though – even the occasional burp in excellence is worth it for the overall story arc of the series.