This episode in the Mary Russell series finds Russell and Holmes in San Francisco, where Russell is to attend to business related to her parents' estate. As Russell gets closer to San Francisco, she becomes increasingly disturbed by nightmares which appear to be linked to childhood events. Once the pair arrive, they naturally become embroiled in a mystery, which is resolved with the assistance of a band of Irregulars, including young crime fiction writer and former Pinkerton's detective, Dashiell Hammett.
There's lots to love about the series in general and this book in particular. King writes very fine prose which is a joy to read and her evocation of place and time is superb. In this novel, San Francisco in the mid-1920s and at the time of the 1906 earthquake comes vividly alive. I particularly enjoyed the setting, having visited San Francisco earlier this year. In addition, she continues to develop her central characters. In this episode, Russell shows great vulnerability, which is an interesting change, and plot developments mean that part of the narrative is from Holmes' perspective, which is an added bonus. I really like the way King makes Holmes her own creation by distancing him from Conan Doyle's Holmes within the text, while having him retain enough of the original Holmes' characteristics to be recognisable. Also, Dashiell Hammett is worked into the plot in an interesting an inventive way. References to "the thin man" to describe the tubercular Hammett made me smile.
There are some less satisfying elements of the novel. The plot is coincidence layered with implausibility. There is, for example, no convincing reason why the culprit, who killed so many people to cover his tracks, would not have done in Russell much earlier in the piece. Also, the resolution is not exactly very exciting. Moreover, King hovers on the edge of having her characters display attitudes which appear anachronistic for the period in which the novel is set.
In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could be fairly ordinary crime fiction. However, I don't read crime fiction for verisimilitude and I don't read this series for the plot. As long as King delivers interesting characters and a great setting in her elegant prose, I'm there. Once again, I regret that it took me so long to decide to read this series. On the other hand, it's great to still have a few more to read before I get to the stage of hanging out for the next instalment.