Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review - The Island of the Mad

I've only read the first couple of books in this series so I've missed some elements of the character development between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. My wife has read them all and she's kept me abreast of which can be read out of order without spoiling things later on. I've always had a fascination with Italy and especially with Venice, so I was excited to check out this Mary/Sherlock novel with the canals of Venice as the backdrop. Naturally then, I was a little let down that it took about half of the book to finally arrive in Italy. I wasn't upset or overly disappointed with the story but I was hoping for a bit more Italian intrigue in The Island of the Mad.

The book starts out with a brief catch up of things mainly to set the stage and the state of Mary's mind. She's had a lot going on lately and so she's caught a little off guard (and perhaps also a little relieved) by a request from her old friend to help track down a missing person...her friend's aunt who disappeared from an asylum. Mary begins digging into the life of Aunt Vivian and the rest of her family. Slowly but surely she finds threads and hints of clues. In spite of very thorough and methodical searching it felt like any chance of success kept getting pulled away. Finally, about halfway through the book, Mary infers that dear Aunt Vivian may have run away to Venice and she heads off in pursuit.

As the series promises, this is a book about Mary Russell AND Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Sherlock's interactions are sometimes more backgrounded and such is the case in this book. He helps with a little legwork here and there and gives Mary bits of advice and helps her work through ideas but for the most part, the case of the missing aunt is a case that Mary works through on her own. In fact, Sherlock has alternate motives for going to Italy. His brother has asked him to look into the "fascist" influence in the city. While Holmes helps Mary with a few inquiries he also makes his own inquiries and investigation into Mussolini's Blackshirt militia that's appearing in the city and keeping his eye out for the elusive British Lord planning to make a deal with Il Duce.

Without spoiling too much, the book ends with both Mary and Sherlock solving their case and melding the ends of the two cases together into a sort of slapstick finale.

To a large extent, I felt like this book was less a mystery and more an expose on the attitudes and behavior towards women in the early 1900s. Perhaps its the social climate in present times that makes this theme feel even more weighty in the book but it felt like the commentary, while truthful and well formulated, overshadowed the plotline of the book. As Mary searches for Vivian and learns more about her confinement in asylums we learn more about how prevalant it was for families (primarily the men) to send their "inconvenient" female relations to be "treated" in asylums. As the book uncovers more details about this practice and others in Vivian's family, the discussion felt like a distant echo of 21st century news.

Beyond the observations about women, another theme that skirted along the edges of the book was that of Mary's age and her life with Sherlock. Fortunately this theme was less overt than the feminist explorations but my problem with it was that I didn't feel it was satisfatorily surfaced enough to be resolved and as such I would have preferred it left out entirely. While there is clearly a significant age gap between Mary and Sherlock it's also been made clear that Mary is more interested in an intellectual connection than a physical one. As she interacts with people her own age in the social events of her age, it's clear from her behavior and thoughts that she's not interested in that kind of relationship so it felt odd that the question popped up from time to time.

The idea of seemingly mismatched relationships is explored in multiple times and multiple ways in the book. In one case the relationship is shown to be very successful. In another case it appears to be a relationship of convenience for both parties but it's hinted that maybe there's a bit more. The question of where Mary and Sherlock's relationship fits is one that just didn't feel well answered mainly because the question was left hanging. To me, their relationship feels great but for some reason the book left inklings of doubt fluttering at the surface making me wonder if perhaps there's an intent to either sever them or to drive a wedge between them and force them to come back stronger. I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

Overall I found the writing engaging, the attention to detail excellent and the story was entertaining. It reminded me in many ways of an original Conan Doyle Sherlock story. At the same time, I felt the book lacking in something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Missing person cases are naturally a little more slowly and with less tension than other mysteries and yet the pacing seemed adequate for the story being told. I think perhaps I wanted a little more interactive sleuthing with Holmes and Russell. In one brief scene they sneak onto a supposedly desert island with plans to break into a cabin there. That scene was still methodic and slower paced but was more engaging than many of the other mystery moments of the book. The tone was less mystery and more historic fiction. It was still a good read but I'd recommend earlier books in the series over this one.

3 out of 5 stars

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