One of the featured speakers on the slate for Books in Bloom on May 21 is Laurie R. King, author of the popular Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books including The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary and 12 more. King will address “Writing the Unknown,” and joins a host of popular authors including another New York Times bestselling author, S.C. Gwynne (Empire of the Summer Moon); Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire book and TV series; and other authors of national note and regional interest.
We caught up with Laurie R. King by email while she was researching Russell XV in London and Venice. As a child, King read her way through libraries up and down the West Coast and spent her middle years raising children, renovating houses, traveling the world and earning a BA and MA in theology. She now lives a genteel life on California’s central coast writing crime series and stand-alone books.
First in the hearts of most readers comes Mary Russell, who met the retired Sherlock Holmes in 1915 and became his apprentice, then his partner. Beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Russell and Holmes move through the Teens and Twenties in amiable discord, challenging each other to ever greater feats of detection.
More than just a crime romp, the series explores the roots of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan, feminism and early Christianity, and patriotism and individual responsibility while also having a rousing good time. Various stories revisit The Hound of the Baskervilles and Kipling’s Kim, set a pair of Bedouin nomads down in a grand country house in England, and offer an insider’s view of the great quake and fire of 1906; all the while forging an unlikely relationship between two remarkably similar individuals who happen to be separated by age, sex, and background.
But how did the author come to writing crime with a background in theology?
“I suppose I began by assuming I would teach, probably university level, in the religion/theology that fascinated me,” King explained. “But in the early nineties my husband was nearing retirement, although our kids were young, and a PhD would have meant eight or ten more years of grad school. So, I thought that until I was forced to get a ‘real job,’ I might experiment with putting words and stories on a page.
“I was very lucky in that I sold my first novel before I was forced into the active job market. Then, after the first, I sold several more. By the time his retirement came about, I was earning a living by telling myself stories!”
King’s Stuyvesant & Grey series, also historical, follows American ex-Bureau of Investigation agent Harris Stuyvesant, damaged young Capt. Bennett Grey, and Grey’s sister Sarah as they move through Europe between the Wars.
Five other novels concern San Francisco homicide inspector Kate Martinelli, Kate’s SFPD partner Al Hawkin, and her life partner, Lee Cooper. During the stories, Kate encounters a female Rembrandt, a modern-day Holy Fool, two difficult teenagers and a manifestation of the goddess Kali.
King’s stand-alone suspense novels include A Darker Place, the story of a middle-aged professor of religion who investigates “cults” for the FBI and encounters a movement that embraces the dangerous beliefs of alchemy. Folly introduces woodworker Rae Newborne, who comes to a deserted island to rebuild a house and her life. Keeping Watch is the story of Rae’s friend Allen Carmichael, a Vietnam vet who draws on his combat experiences to rescue abused women and children – until he comes across a boy whose problems may rival his own. Califia’s Daughters (a paperback original under the pen name Leigh Richards) is a post-apocalyptic sort of tale set in a near future where women rule and men are fragile.
King has also collaborated on nonfiction works including Crime & Thriller Writing and The Grand Game as well as several short story anthologies.
Her work, however never really abandons her academic background. “Many of the stories incorporate theological ideas or religious persons, such as the cop who is confronted by a holy fool, or Mary Russell encountering a modern-day mystic. Theological ideas allow me to explore deeper issues that wrap around the central crime, and to make the people real,” King noted.
With such an ardent following for the series, it’s inevitable King would deal with some strong opinions from fans who closely follow her characters. “Any long-running series develops a life of its own, with fans for whom the characters are considerably more real than the mere author,” King said. “It’s common to find push-back when it comes to some event in the book, with readers objecting that ‘[a character] wouldn’t do that.’”
King said her favorite book is always the next one; and as for which was the hardest to write, she confessed that “they all go through tough bits.”
“The one that’s taken me the longest, from its beginnings to actual publication, is the upcoming Lockdown, a novel built around a series of short stories that stretch back to the late nineties. Each of those stories is about a person who appears in the novel, explaining what has brought them to this middle school on this particular day. I really love this book, and although I suppose in a way the lengthy writing process means it was ‘difficult,’ it was also a joy to see it come to life before me.”
Lockdown, coming out June 13, is set in a present day California central coast middle school. There is threat, as the title indicates, but it’s also an exploration of community and strength, and how the most unlikely of individuals fit together to make a whole.
Books in Bloom is a free event presented by the Carroll and Madison Public Library Foundation on Sunday, May 21, from 12 – 5 p.m. at the Crescent Hotel. See www.booksinbloom.org for complete author bios and speakers’ schedule.