Give Now  »

Laurie R. King: A 20th Century Feminist Marries Sherlock Holmes

What if Sherlock Holmes married a woman of equal wit and intelligence, and they solved crimes as a team? That's the premise of Laurie R. King's popular series of suspense novels featuring Holmes and Mary Russell.

King has just had published the tenth installment in her Mary Russell series, The God of the Hive.

A Voice In Her Head

The series began one day in the late 1980s. King heard the voice of a young, 19th-century Englishwoman speak to her:

"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him."

With that one sentence, King knew everything she needed to about the character.

"That voice just presented itself as a complete personality," King says, "and never really needed any development. It's the sort of thing every writer hopes for and you rarely get."

That line became the opening sentence in the first of Laurie R. King's novels. King, who never took a course in creative writing, has since written nine Mary Russell novels, several stand-alone suspense novels, and a series about San Francisco homicide detective, Kate Martinelli.

Echoes In The Mind

King describes Mary Russell as a young, feminist, 20th-century version of Sherlock Holmes. "I wanted to write that kind of mind in a different setting," she explains. "Instead of a Victorian male, what would that mind look like in a young woman? That's where Russell came from."

King has followed the dictum 'write what you know' by giving Russell a background in theology; King herself studied academic theology at a seminary. "It enables me to have Russell talk about things that interest me and that feed into whichever crime is at the center of that particular novel."

For King, religious subjects are part of life. "That's one of the joys of writing and reading crime fiction: It deals with all kinds of aspects of life."

Having grown up in the 1960s, King is fascinated by the way that social changes of her own era echo those in 1920s England – feminism, the rise of drug use, and international relations, to name a few.

"One of the joys of writing historical fiction is that you can set something in, for example, 1924 India, and you can write about things that have an echo in the mind of the reader eighty years later. We are dealing with those same issues now that they were dealing with then."

Respect, My Dear Watson

To keep her series fresh, King does something different in each Mary Russell novel. She'll vary the tone, for example, or draw on her extensive travel background to set the novel in a far-off locale, like Palestine. In one book, King gave Sherlock Holmes a son. In The God of the Hive, she uses multiple points of view.

"The God of the Hive has much more of a thriller kind of pace than the last novel, which was more suspenseful. I do various things like that to keep each book fresh in my own mind. I think if things are fresh in the writer's mind, they are fresh for the reader as well."

In the original Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, Sherlock Holmes was a lifelong bachelor and rather aloof towards women. But then again, notes King, Holmes was aloof with just about everyone.

"I think Sherlock Holmes viewed most people with some disdain, but he actually had respect for number of women. In the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia," a woman gets the better of him. That sets the scene for his later attitude towards women. He doesn't trust them an awful lot, but he does respect them."

"Do What You Will With Him"

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Holmes stories until his death in 1930. He kept Holmes' Victorian attitudes constant, even while English society after the Great War was in flux. In Laurie King's imagining of Holmes, though, the detective changes with the times.

"I thought Holmes would change along with his country. He would shake off his Victorian past and embrace the 20th century in a way that Conan Doyle just couldn't envision. One of those areas was the personal. I thought that by the time this man was in his middle years, he would be open enough to a person like Russell. That he could envision a long-term relationship with her."

Other authors besides King have involved Holmes in romance-even while Conan Doyle was alive. When William Gillette was adapting a Holmes story for the stage, he asked Conan Doyle for permission to have the great detective get married in the play.

"The response from Conan Doyle was, ‘Marry him, or murder him, or do what you will with him,'" King says with a laugh. "I have simply carried on that tradition."

For More About Laurie R. King...

• Visit Laurie R. King on her Web site

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From