This sixth novel in the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series may be my favourite so far. If so, it is not because of the mystery, which is whether the battlefield execution of a young officer in WWI was in fact a sophisticated murder. Nor it is because of anything that Russell and Holmes actually did in the course of the novel, although they remain on good form.
In my view, the chief strength of the novel lies in two characters who made their first appearance in the preceding novel in the series – O Jerusalem – albeit in a very different guise - and in another character introduced in the novel, the redoubtable Iris. These three are great characters: compelling, exotic and just believable enough. Another strength is the moving theme of battlefield executions during WWI and the experience of war in the trenches, which is poignantly described. The scene involving Russell and Holmes and the elderly chaplain is particularly moving.
King writes lovely, fluid prose, with interesting dialogue and powerful descriptive language. The narrative is – as is usual in this series - from the perspective of Mary Russell, whose observations are caustic and witty. The mystery is secondary to other themes and the resolution is consequently not terribly suspenseful. While this is certainly a weakness in a crime fiction novel, it did not unduly disturb me because of the novel’s strengths. Something which may be perceived as a strength or a weakness depending on the perspective of the reader, is the setting the major part of the novel: the country estate of an English aristocrat. It’s all rather Downton Abbey. If I weren’t somewhat addicted to that television series, I might roll my eyes. But as I am, the setting only added to my reading pleasure.
This novel contained several scenes which moved me to tears. This doesn’t happen to me that often when I read crime fiction and when it does, it’s a definite mark in the writer’s favour. Overall, this is a solid novel in a solid series.