Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thursday: My Favorite Reads: O JERUSALEM by Laurie R. King

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." Psalm 137:5

Since today is Sherlock Holme's birthday, I thought I'd talk about another of Laurie King's excellent Holmes books, a book I've loved from the getgo and have read several times. I can't stress enough how imaginative, how brilliant, how wonderful this book is without seeming like a slavering groupie. Well, okay, I'm a slavering groupie. There's worse things I could be. Ha!

Please note: This is not the second book in the series begun so spectacularly (and audaciously) with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, though I think it should have been. I always recommend reading O JERUSALEM second if you're just begun or about to begin reading the Holmes/Russell series. It's totally up to you. The 'official' second book in the series is actually A MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN, but this could easily be read as the third book without missing a beat. All my opinion, you understand.

In O JERUSALEM, Holmes and his apprentice/partner, the brilliant student Mary Russell are forced by deadly circumstance to get away from London for awhile. So off they go in 1918 to the British protectorate of Palestine. A country just liberated from the Turks the previous autumn. At the behest of Mycroft Holmes - Sherlock's brother who is high up in murky government circles -both travelers will be performing some vaguely described undercover work while they make their way across the rugged terrain to the city of Jerusalem. (Given a choice of several destinations by Holmes, it is Russell who has chosen to travel to Palestine, she is Jewish and Jerusalem holds special allure for her.)

To that end and upon arrival at night hidden in a skiff, they must meet and pass muster with two suspicious Arab agents who do not want them there in the first place. Mahmoud and Ali regard Holmes and Russell as nuisances who have been foisted on them. They are not happy playing nursemaid at a time when any wrong move could bring disaster. Palestine is (and always appears to have been) a hazardous place, especially for outsiders. Jerusalem in 1918 is a hodgepodge of Brits, Arabs, Jews, Christians, spies, troublemakers and possible terrorists.

Steven immediately shipped his oars, stood, and stepped over the prow of the little boat into the shallow water. Holmes grabbed his haversack and went next, jumping lightly onto the coarse shingle. I followed, pausing for a moment on the bow to squint through my salt-smeared spectacles at the dark shore. Steven put his hand up to help me, and as I shifted my eyes downward they registered with a shock two figures standing perfectly still, thirty feet or so behind Holmes.

"Holmes," I hissed, "there are two women behind you!"

Steven's hand on mine hesitated briefly, then tugged again. "Miss Russell, there'll be a patrol any minute. It's all right."

I stepped cautiously into the water beside him and moved up to where Holmes stood.

"Salaam aleikum, Steven," came a voice from the night: accented, low, and by no means that of a woman.

"Aleikum es-salaam, Ali. I hope you are well."

"Praise be to God," was the reply.

"I have a pair of pigeons for you."

"They could have landed at a more convenient time, Steven."

"Shall I take them away again?"

"No, Steven. We accept delivery. Mahmoud regrets we cannot ask you to come and drink coffee, but at the moment, it would not be wise. Maalesh," he added, using the all-purpose Arabic expression that was a verbal shrug of the shoulders at life's inequities and accidents.

Mahmoud and Ali, go on to become two of author Laurie R. King's most indelible characters. I have never forgotten them (and with my memory, that's saying something), nor will I. (They will show up later in another of King's books, JUSTICE HALL.) They almost steal the show from Russell and Holmes. Almost. How these four characters become trusting equals realistically takes most of the book, hindered by the fact that Russell is a woman who, to Mahmoud and Ali's horror, must masquerade as a man for most of the book.

Almost from the start, things go wrong, beginning with the brutal murders of some Jewish farmers. From this terrible incident, Holmes is able to use his colossal and intuitive powers to deduce that the dead farmers are only the beginning of some bizarre plot, the bodies have been left as messages. Something dreadful lurks on the horizon.

This is the sort of story in which the most minute clue can change the course of history. The reader is brought along on a hair-raising adventure, travelling in an unfamiliar country, across unfamiliar and very rugged terrain, meeting up here and there with friends but mostly with enemies. All the while Russell learning the language and dialects so she can 'pass'. Mostly they label her a mute and leave it at that. It is fortunate that Russell has a genius for languages and as she beings to get a handle on the language, we do too. We also begin to understand the possible repercussions from the slightest of mistakes. This is an ancient and very complex society made more volatile by its recent history and its current domination by the British.

One of many things I like about King's books is that she often mixes in 'real' persons within her stories. In O JERUSALEM, we get a level, sympathetic portrayal of the legendary General Allenby , the Brit commander. There is also mention of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and we get a brief glimpse of him near the end.

I make no bones about it, I love this book. I love the writing, the constant wary sense of danger, the grand adventure, the relationship between the four characters, the setting, the historical turmoil and everything else, anything else having to do with this amazing story. When I feel like leaving reality behind and heading out on an improbable adventure, I reread O JERUSALEM.

I have a signed first/first of O JERUSALEM which I watched Laurie R. King sign for me in Las Vegas several years ago, it is one of my most prized possessions.


  1. This sounds really good. Thanks for the post.

  2. You're welcome. I love this book and I often get carried away talking about it. :)

  3. Love how Laurie King mixes in history and real people with her characters. You can learn alot about the people of the time period, world events, the land (especially Great Britain), and be entertained by a great mystery story at the same time.


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