Excerpted from Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 2005 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In Locked Rooms, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes travel to San Francisco so that Russell can settle her late parents' estate. How does this book shed new light on Russell's character? How about on Holmes?
We first learned about Russell's history in California in The Beekeeper's Apprentice and now, seven books later, we're finally getting down to details. Unfortunately, Russell proves to have some sort of persistent, and previously unsuspected, mental block about her entire childhood, so that details are hard for her to remember. This problem of an unreliable narrator in Locked Rooms finds its solution in having Holmes take a greater role in the story than he does in the previous books, with sections narrated by Russell alternating with those following Holmes and his various Irregulars. It is a personal book for Russell, being entirely wrapped up in her past and that of her family, but it also gives us insight into Holmes, particularly his relationship with this young woman who is his partner and wife.
You have ties to San Francisco, the setting for Locked Rooms—your mother was born there, you spent part of your childhood in the Bay Area, and you currently live in northern California. Was it significant for you to set this book in a location you know so well? Did you draw on your family history at all?
Most of the Russell books are set in England, but I greatly enjoy writing those set elsewhere as well—O Jerusalem in what was at the time Palestine, The Game in India. To an Englishman in the 1920s, California would have been a far more exotic place than India, what with the Wild West overtones, the devastating fire eighteen years earlier, and Prohibition adding its piquant flavor to the place. In 1924, the Twenties were just getting under way, so for the first time in the books, we find ourselves in speakeasies and dancing that new craze, the Charleston. My grandparents, both of whom went through the earthquake, were a part of that era; in fact one of the characters bears a name similar to that of my grandmother, Flossie. The book is dedicated to Flossie and her husband, Dick.
For readers who have yet to make the acquaintance of Mary Russell, what would you tell them about the series?
Mary Russell is a young, female (and feminist) Twentieth Century edition of Sherlock Holmes. Their partnership is a good part rivalry, which makes for some fun scenes, but it also enables me to develop the rather two-dimensional character of Holmes that Conan Doyle preferred.
In previous Russell/Holmes books, literary characters such as Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Rudyard Kipling's Kim O'Hara have made appearances. Locked Rooms features a real historical figure, Dashiell Hammett. Why did you choose to have Hammett play a part in the story?
Well, I originally thought to give him a brief cameo, since he was there in San Francisco at the time and I like to people the background of the stories with actual individuals—something along the lines of the mention of T. E. Lawrence at the end of O Jerusalem . However, once Hammett had his well-shod foot in the door, he just kept muscling his way in until he nearly took the book over. With Russell rendered unsuitable for combat due to her psychological preoccupations, Holmes needed a suitable foil. Hammett is it.
Do you have a favorite moment or scene in Locked Rooms?
The chase scene through Chinatown was fun to write, with caged chickens flying and a bullet whizzing through the telephone exchange. Still, my favorite parts of the books are almost always the small sparkly bits. Things like, when Russell brings up the opportunity to travel to New York by airplane, Holmes' reaction is given as, "Holmes' upper lip was nothing if not stiff." And when Russell, Holmes, and Hammett confront an aged Chinese scholar, I shaped the scene around a similar character in one of Hammett's short stories, although I knew that very, very few people would get the joke.
You've traveled to many of the locales in the Russell/Holmes books, including England, Israel and India. Where will your travels take you next, and will you use it as a setting for a future book?
The next book coming out is set in San Francisco, modern and historical, but after that I think I'll be writing a stand-alone set in England in the Twenties and Thirties. In the future, I'd like to develop an episode mentioned in Locked Rooms, when Russell and Holmes pause for three weeks in Japan to do a job for the emperor. That episode was placed there almost entirely to give me an excuse to go to Japan.
What makes Russell and Holmes such an interesting and appealing couple, both personally and professionally? How do they complement one another?
They are each other, with profound differences that arise out of their sex and their times. In fact, that was probably the initial impetus for Russell's character, the question, "What would that man's mind look like in a woman?" Yes, Holmes is a Victorian male gentleman, but on the other hand, a brain is a kind of engine and can be adapted for all kinds of settings. When she and he clash, it is because of their similarities, not their differences.
Besides the Russell/Holmes books, you also write the Kate Martinelli series and stand-alone novels. Is it important to you to have variety in your writing life?
Oh yes, absolutely essential. If I had to write a string of Russells in a row, I'd end up doing violence to the poor girl. The shift in perspective, voice, setting, even language is like traveling to a foreign country each year; it keeps me from seeing that I'm just doing the same thing, sitting and pecking out words on a keyboard.
When did your affinity for storytelling begin?
My affinity for stories has been there since I was tiny, although I didn't begin to tell my own until I was in my thirties. I've always loved to escape into books, and since we moved a lot when I was a kid, local libraries became my most steadfast source of friendship.
Do you enjoy the research aspect of creating your books? How about for the Russell series in particular?
I am a recovering academic, and find research dangerously addictive, to the point that a book often threatens to wander off into the stacks and become permanently lost amidst the facts. I try to avoid this by doing a minimum of research at the early stages, then later concentrating on given areas after I know what I need. However, I still find myself reading a ton of books that end up having nothing to do with the finished story.
After eight books, is it difficult to come up with new adventures for Russell and Holmes?
I haven't had any problems so far. After they get back to England in a couple of years, I may have to set off a few firecrackers under them to keep them (and me) from becoming complacent.
What are you working on now, and when will it be available?
It's sort of halfway between a Kate Martinelli and a Mary Russell, which sounds impossible but seems to be working remarkably well. It's still nameless at the moment—it's been through two or three titles on my computer, but I've yet to come up with one my editor cares much for. (This is hardly unusual for me—actually, neither of my children had legal names for weeks after their births—but it does frustrate those saddled with the job of writing catalog copy.) I can say that at long last, in the summer of 2006, Kate Martinelli and her friends both in and out of the San Francisco Police Department will return, investigating a death on the Marin headlands that has something to do with...Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.
I'm having a whole lot of fun with it.