‘O Jerusalem’ was a book that I came to with reluctance rather than enthusiasm. I’d enjoyed the first four books in the series both because each book had a strong plot heightened by fascinating historical details and because Laurie King slowly grew the partnership between Russell and Holmes into something credible and intriguing. The retired, much older Holmes is an extension of Conan Doyle’s creation, not a pastiche of it and Mary Russell, intelligent, brave, unconventional, intellectually rigorous and endlessly curious is a character strong enough not to be at Holmes’ side without being in his shadow.
Yet, when I reached ‘O Jerusalem’, the fifth book, my enthusiasm for the series faltered. I was put off because the book goes back in time to fill in a blank few weeks in the first book, ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’ when Russell and Holmes his away from their enemies by spending time abroad. This bothered me because I thought it was likely to lose the forward momentum in the relationship between Russel and Holmes that the first four books had delivered, and because it took me back to a point when the age gap and experience gap between Russell and Holmes had seemed too wide to be bridged. I was also put off by the setting of the book. I seldom enjoy books set in rancid politics of the Middle East and the behaviour of the British Government in 1919 seems to me to have been a major contributor to the instability of the region for the rest of the century.
In the end, I read ‘O Jerusalem’ simply so that I could move on and read the rest of the series. While the book didn’t engage me in the way its predecessors had, it turned out not to be a dull chore either.
It had been so long since I’d read a Russell and Holmes book that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Mary Russell’s low-key, slightly dry, very perceptive descriptions of people, places and events. Listening to Mary telling the story of her time with Holmes in Jerusalem was the strongest part of the book for me.
The plot is about espionage rather than solving a murder. I found it to be a little static, although the ending managed to have enough energy in it to read like a thriller. The sense of place was very strong. It didn’t make me hungry to visit Palestine but it did bring both the discomforts of the environment and the richness of the culture to life.
I found myself out of sympathy with her romantic view of Jerusalem and her uncritical admiration of Edmund Allenby but I could see that they fitted into her character perfectly both as a religious scholar and as a nineteen-year-old coming face to face with one of the most charismatic men in the region.
I was surprised to find that the book helped me to become more comfortable with the relationship between Russell and Holmes. Throughout most of the book, Russell presents herself as a young Arab boy, called Amir. This seemed to be a very empowering experience for her, allowing her to display her odd mix of scholarship, language skills, and combat skills to advantage. I also liked the scene in the book where Russell attends a ball at Allenby’s request and finds herself as the only single woman in a room full of young Army Officiers who buzz around her like flies. She rises to the occasion with aplomb and enjoys seeing Holmes’ discomfort at the attention she receives.
So, having been reminded of how much I like Mary Russell, I’m now ready to resume reading the series and I’m looking forward to moving back up the timeline for the next book, ‘Justice Hall’ and seeing how a slightly older and no longer single Mary Russell handles a meeting with two men that she worked with closely in Palestine.