Books and Authors – Laurie R. King

When I look back on my life, books are the one constant. A safe place midst the ever-changing world, they offer knowledge, enlightenment, entertainment, and hope. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading and at a very early age, mysteries became my genre of choice. As a kid, my mom was the reader in the family – she read the classics, of course (and TIME Magazine, which she kept rolled in her back pocket at the ready when a few spare minutes presented themselves or a kid needed a gentle smack across the bottom). But she also read Earl Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, and if you looked between the mattress and box spring of her bed, you would discover she also read Mickey Spillane. And so did I. I did read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and all those books intended for kids my age, but I was entranced by the grown-up stuff. Forbidden territory in those days.

As I’ve grown, friends have come and gone; jobs have come and gone, and family too. I still turn to books as that safe place. My reading choices have changed over the years, but mysteries (or crime fiction as some call it today) remain a steady constant. Ten years ago my friend, Chris Aldrich, and I took over publication of a mystery paper entitled Mystery News – the dream of a lifetime to be involved in the mystery book, author and fan community. Published six times per year, Mystery News has included thousands of book reviews and hundreds of interviews with mystery authors. And it is here, in this wonderful community that I found my own voice amongst the voices of so many others.

And so it is with this in mind that I offer this column to you. You won’t find book reviews here, but rather a discussion of books and authors. Once a month I’ll tell you about a mystery author and their body of work. Some will be experienced authors with their voices finely honed and many books under their belts. Others will be the new voices of mystery with their rough edges and their first or second books just hitting the shelves.

Laurie R. King

For this issue I’ve chosen Laurie R. King – a finely honed voice, an incredible talent, and a very cool person, indeed. King has published seventeen books to date with the newest, Touchstone, planned for January 2008. Her work falls into three categories: the Mary Russell books, the Kate Martinelli books, and three, soon to be four, stand-alone suspense novels.

The Mary Russell books, beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, are historical mysteries set in England in the early 1900s. Mary Russell is a bright young, independent woman who literally runs into a retired beekeeper on the Sussex Downs. The beekeeper turns out to be none other than Sherlock Holmes. The series, now consisting of eight books, follows the relationship between Holmes and Russell as they solve numerous puzzles together and apart. Written in 1987, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was King’s first book, although not published first, it took the mystery world by storm when it made its appearance in 1994.

At the time, King had already earned her BA in Comparative Religion and an MA in Old Testament Theology – you’ll find her background peeking through in some of the later Russell and Martinelli books. In fact, she is so good at this that her husband, a retired professor in Comparative Religions, totally fell for the entirely fictitious modern Fools Movement that represented the core premise of To Play the Fool, the second book in the Martinelli series. But I digress. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was written in just 4 weeks, 28 days. King claims it’s been heavily rewritten and that she doesn’t write at that pace any longer. No matter, it’s an astounding book and has just been reissued in trade paperback by Picador. Four of the early Russells will be available in this format by November.

The Kate Martinelli books, now numbering five, began with A Grave Talent (a book that would fetch almost $1,000 in the collector’s market if I had actually bought it in first edition as was strongly suggested at the time). Martinelli is a current day San Francisco homicide inspector. Although the series may, at times, follow the generic police procedural plot line, the books are far more complex than the average cop story. The relationships between lesbian detective Martinelli and her SFPD partner Alonzo Hawkin and Martinelli and her life partner Lee Cooper give the books their unique perspective. A Grave Talent was originally published in 1993 and after a six-year hiatus, the fifth in the series, The Art of Detection, was published in 2006.

King has also written three stand-alone suspense novels, A Darker Place, Folly, and Keeping Watch. My favorite, by far, is Folly. Rae Newborn is 52 years old, an artist, a woodworker. She’s lost important people in her life; she’s been attacked; and she is in deep depression laced with paranoia. In an effort to quiet the voices and chase away the demons, she heads off to Folly Island, a tiny spit of land in the Pacific Ocean. Rae has inherited the island from her Great Uncle who built a home on Folly only to see it burn down to the foundation upon completion. It is Rae’s plan to restore the house based on an old photograph – totally on her own. Folly is a story of survival, of discovery, of rebirth and of hope. It’s the story of one woman pitted against real and imagined, internal and external forces. Rae Newborn fights for her life in an attempt to return from the depths of despair. As I’ve told King, when I finished that book, I wanted to get down in the dirt and build my own house – this from a city kid whose idea of roughing it was watching black and white TV. It was incredible and life changing.

Folly is just one exquisite example of Laurie R. King’s talent. In all of her books, character development is sublime, her plotting complex and then there are the words, the light, crisp, sensual prose of a writer who came to writing with a considerable talent and has finely honed that talent to what it is today. Go to the bookstore or the library and find out for yourself what a grave talent is Laurie R. King.

Enjoy the mystery.