MysteryPeople Q&A with Laurie R. King

Laurie R. King joins us here at BookPeople on Sunday, April 10th at 2 PM, to speak and sign her latest Mary Russell novel, The Murder of Mary Russell. Her latest delves into Mrs. Hudson’s past for one of the strongest installments in the series to date. You can find copies of King’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

In support of Austin Public Library, 5% of sales of all Laurie R. King titles sold in store on Sunday April 10th and 5 % of sales of The Murder of Mary Russell the week of April 5th will be donated to the library. This includes pre-orders or web orders for folks who can’t attend the event.

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

“Sherlock Holmes has a way of bringing strong women into his ken: Irene Adler beats him at his own game, his women clients occasionally get into trouble by not being traditionally cautious—and we all know about Mary Russell. It seemed to me that any woman whose roof he’s been living under for twenty-odd years, without his driving her mad or murdering her outright, must have both backbone and a certain appeal for the detective. Since the number of paths open to a woman in the 19th century were limited, and since Holmes had a longstanding interest in crime and criminals, I figured that the Gloria Scott sailor might not be the only criminal Hudson in the life of Sherlock Holmes.”


Molly Odintz: Your novel is titled The Murder of Mary Russell, yet you keep the audience in suspense over Mary’s mortal peril for much of the novel. How did you come up with that structure?

Laurie R. King: What, a structure that torments my readers? Isn’t that what any crime writer lives for? But you’re right. Part of the problem with a first-person series—“memoirs”—is that telling anything that took place outside of Russell’s point of view requires some device such as a letter or newspaper article, or having the protagonist sit and listen to a lengthy conversation. So some books ago, I began introducing alternate, third-person points of view, partly to simplify those stretches of outside information, but also because it lets me, yes, play with tension.

And boy, do I play with it here.

MO: Mary Russell, normally the protagonist in your series, is shunted to the side in favor of the mystery of Mrs. Hudson’s past. What inspired you to tell the story of such an essential, yet poorly fleshed out figure of the canon?

LRK: I wouldn’t say Russell is shunted aside, although it’s true that in page count, much of the book concerns events that took place long before she came on the scene. Throughout the Russell & Holmes stories, there have been traces of the past, emotional and psychological currents she not only doesn’t understand, but isn’t even fully aware of.

In one of the early stories, Russell says that even Mrs Hudson came into Holmes’ life through a criminal case. I was not the first to note that the landlady shares a surname with the villain of the very first case Holmes worked as a young man, a sailor in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.” This shared name is, frankly, probably an accident—Conan Doyle wrote at speed, and often forgot details of his previous stories. But as a good Sherlockian, I search out patterns in all apparent accidents, and this is what I found: that from the early days, Sherlock Holmes has worked with some interesting women.

(Although as you point out, Mrs Hudson gets short shrift in the Conan Doyle stories. She doesn’t even appear in any of the original Strand illustrations.)

MO: What was your inspiration for Clara Hudson’s backstory?

LRK: As I say, Sherlock Holmes has a way of bringing strong women into his ken: Irene Adler beats him at his own game, his women clients occasionally get into trouble by not being traditionally cautious—and we all know about Mary Russell. It seemed to me that any woman whose roof he’s been living under for twenty-odd years, without his driving her mad or murdering her outright, must have both backbone and a certain appeal for the detective. Since the number of paths open to a woman in the 19th century were limited, and since Holmes had a longstanding interest in crime and criminals, I figured that the Gloria Scott sailor might not be the only criminal Hudson in the life of Sherlock Holmes.

“As far as I can see, the main reason we read—or write—historical fiction is not because it’s different, but because it holds a mirror up to our own lives. Yes, the past resonates, whether I’m writing about Palestine as the British are making decisions about its future, or a women’s movement that doesn’t depend on men, or the motivations that drive a terrorist (O Jerusalem; A Monstrous Regiment of Women; Touchstone.)”

MO: I’ve been following your series for quite some time, along with my sister, and we wanted to ask you – will Holmes’ son return to the series?

LRK: No doubt! In fact, there’s a short story simmering on the back burner where Damian and his daughter come back and visit some old friends. At Christmastime. Yes: Holmes at Christmas.

MO: With Clara Hudson’s story, you’ve captured the attitude of the 19th century perfectly – blackmail, character assassination, and any assault to a reputation are treated as equal to or worse than a violent crime. 20th century detectives are hired to save people, while 19th century detectives are hired to save people’s reputations. Why were 19th century figures so horrified by blackmail and property crime, yet seemingly willing to condone violent crime?

LRK: Interesting question. Perhaps it has to do with the class system? That as far as Society were concerned, nice people didn’t get themselves murdered. Of course, it was to some extent true—and still is—that the higher up the economic scale one goes, the more closely protected one will be. To the Victorian upper class, violent crime was linked with the crawling poverty and filth of the working classes.

However, Victorians were also very aware of how tenuous their position was. It took little to knock a member of the middle class into the gutter, particularly a woman. Similarly, the upper classes were vulnerable to the pull of the social gutter: a Society woman whose name was dirtied might not starve, but she would certainly be starved for the company of her peers.

MO: Most of your Mary Russell novels take place in the 1920s, yet “The Murder of Mary Russell” goes farther back into the 19th century. The Victorian era, like our own, was characterized by rapidly evolving communications technology and a widening disparity in income. One could replace “service” with “the service industry” in the old adage about Victorian England – either you were in service or employed service – and have the same relevance today. Did you feel those same parallels, or different resonances, when you write historical fiction?

LRK: As far as I can see, the main reason we read—or write—historical fiction is not because it’s different, but because it holds a mirror up to our own lives. Yes, the past resonates, whether I’m writing about Palestine as the British are making decisions about its future, or a women’s movement that doesn’t depend on men, or the motivations that drive a terrorist (O Jerusalem; A Monstrous Regiment of Women; Touchstone.) By considering the Middle East or women’s rights or an act of terror inside its foreign setting, we can look at sides of it that we haven’t considered before, and realize how it becomes all the more familiar.

MO: You’ve written quite a few Mary Russell novels, and have explored much of the British Empire and the happenings of London in these books. What’s left to explore? Where do you want to take your characters next?

LRK: Oh, the world is their oyster. I’d love to take them to Istanbul, although the city is not exactly an amiable place for a researcher just at the moment. Perhaps Venice—although there are many, many corners of the British Isles left for them to explore. London, maybe?

“I’m occasionally asked if Martinelli and Russell would get along, and although I imagine they’d have a great deal of respect for each other, much of the time they’d be eyeing each other out of the corners of their eyes, uncomprehendingly.”

MO: I love your Kate Martinelli series, just as much as the Mary Russell series, yet aside from strong female detectives, the two series couldn’t be more different. Could you tell us about your Martinelli series, and the inspiration behind it?

LRK: (Hmm, do we seem to be on a theme of strong women here?)

I’d written two Russells and, while I was waiting for a publisher to pounce, I had an idea for another story that involved a sort of female Rembrandt. However, it didn’t feel like a story that fit the somewhat whimsical world of Russell & Holmes, so I took that seed and planted it in the modern era, in a part of the world that I knew fairly well, northern California.

The differences are indeed many—Kate is by no means an academic, she’s relatively gregarious, she’s not particularly self-reflective. And she’s a lesbian.
At the time, her orientation was just who she was in my mind, but looking back, I think it was also a way of establishing her as an outsider within a tightly-knit, almost paramilitary sort of organization like a police force. And, I wanted Kate and her (older, male) cop partner to be friends, since a male/female friendship would be more interesting, or at least less predictable, than having sexual tension crop up at their every encounter.

I’m occasionally asked if Martinelli and Russell would get along, and although I imagine they’d have a great deal of respect for each other, much of the time they’d be eyeing each other out of the corners of their eyes, uncomprehendingly.

MO: You’ve got a great mixture of modern and classic style in your writing. Who are some of the authors that have influenced you the most (aside from Conan Doyle)?

LRK: I’d say authors who revel in the potential and breadth of the crime genre, people like Josephine Tey, who does the most incredibly sly things with her plots, or the late Peter Dickinson, whose crime novels are anthropological and psychological studies set at the farthest reaches of human society.

As for the style itself, that comes from the individual story. Russell speaks in the faintly pompous voice of an elderly academic woman, who expects her readers to catch up with her. The Martinellis are simpler English, and distinctly American in spelling and structure. The standalones are somewhere in between.

All of which means that the voices in my head speak in a number of dialects…


Come by BookPeople this upcoming Sunday, April 1oth, at 2 PM for a fantastic event! Laurie R. King will be speaking and signing her latest in the Mary Russell series, The Murder of Mary Russell, available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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