This is the seventh novel in King’s Mary Russell series and one of my favourites so far. In this instalment, Sherlock Holmes and his wife and partner Mary Russell travel to India to look for Kimball O’Hara – the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. There is concern from on high that Kim, who has been missing for some three years, has either been captured or has turned traitor in the Great Game.
The conceit of the narrative is disarming. When Mary Russell, who only knows of Kim from reading Kipling, asks if he is a real person, Holmes responds “As real as I am”. With that, the adventure begins. There’s a rush to get away from England, an ocean voyage through the Suez Canal, an American flapper, her possibly sinister brother, disguise and magic in India, a Maharaja with secrets and a street urchin who may have secrets of his own. And then there’s Kim – the idea of him and, ultimately, the actuality of him – as believable as Kipling’s Kim, albeit some thirty years older.
For all of my general resistance to the concept of a novelist writing books using characters created by other writers, I love this series. King knows her source material well and treats it with love and respect. Her plotting is excellent and her characters are credible and interesting. She can also evoke the time and place in which her novels are set without fussy period detail. Of course, like a lot of fiction of this genre, this is a highly implausible tale and when I finished reading the book the silliness of it all struck home. But while reading, I was completely in the narrative and totally prepared to suspend disbelief.
Knowing that Kimball O’Hara was to make an appearance in this novel made me decide to read Kipling’s Kim for the first time. It’s a book I'd previously avoided because I’m not keen on boys’ own adventure stories and I felt a bit iffy about Kipling generally because of his reputation as a supporter of the British imperialist enterprise. However, I listened to an audiobook edition of Kim and it was wonderful. (My review, is here, should anyone be interested in reading it). My enjoyment of this novel was enhanced by the experience of listening to Kim and my experience of listening to Kim was enhanced by reading King’s homage to that work. Immersing myself in India under British rule for a few days has given me lots of reading and listening enjoyment.