It is 1923. Mary Russell Holmes and her husband, the retired Sherlock Holmes, are enjoying the summer together on their Sussex estate when they are visited by an old friend, Miss Dorothy Ruskin, an archaeologist just returned from Palestine. She leaves in their protection an ancient manuscript which seems to hint at the possibility that Mary Magdalene was an apostlean artifact certain to stir up a storm of biblical proportions in the Christian establishment. When Ruskin is suddenly killed in a tragic accident, Russell and Holmes find themselves on the trail of a fiendishly clever murderer. A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King is brimming with political intrigue, theological arcana, and brilliant Holmesian deductions.
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The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.
I leant back in my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped them onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets. The person who had so unceremoniously delivered this grubby interruption moved off across the room, where I heard him sort a series of envelopes chuk-chuk-chuk into the wastepaper basket, then stepped into the front hallway to drop a heavy envelope onto the table there (Mrs Hudson's monthly letter from her son in Australia, I noted, two days early) before coming back to take up a position beside my desk, one shoulder dug into the bookshelf, eyes gazing, no doubt, out the window at the Downs rolling down to the Channel. I replaced the heels of my hands with the backs of my fingers, cool against the hectic flesh, and addressed my husband.
"Do you know, Holmes, I had a great-uncle in Chicago whose promising medical career was cut short when he began to go blind over his books. It must be extremely frustrating to have one's future betrayed by a tiny web of optical muscles. Though he did go on to make a fortune selling eggs and trousers to the gold miners," I added. "Whom is it from?"
"Shall I read it to you, Russell, so as to save your optic muscles for the metheg and your beloved furtive patach?" His solicitous words were spoilt by the sardonic, almost querulous edge to his voice. "Alas, I have become a mere secretary to my wife's ambitions. Kindly do not snort, Russell. It is an unbecoming sound. Let me see." I felt his arm come across my desk, and I heard the letter whisper as it was plucked up. "The envelope is from the H¶tel Imperial in Paris, a name which contains distinct overtones of sagging mattresses and ominous nocturnal rustling noises in the wardrobe. It is addressed simply to Mary Russell, no title whatsoever. The hand is worthy of some attention. A woman's writing, surely, though almost masculine in the way the fingers grasp the pen. The writer is obviously highly educated, a 'professional woman,' to use the somewhat misleading modern phrase; I venture to say that this particular lady does not depend on her womanliness for a livelihood. Her t's reveal her to be an impatient person, and there is passion in the sweeps of her uprights, yet her s's and a's speak of precision and the lower edge of each line is as exact as it is authoritative. She also either has great faith in the French and English postal systems or else is so self-assured as to consider the insurance of placing her name or room number on the envelope unnecessary. I lean toward the latter theory."
As this analysis progressed, I recovered my glasses, the better to study my companion where he stood in the bright window, bent over the envelope like a jeweller with some rare uncut stone, and I was hit by one of those odd moments of analytical apartness, when one looks with a stranger's eyes on something infinitely familiar. Physically, Sherlock Holmes had changed little since we had first met on these same Sussex Downs a bit more than eight years before. His hair was slightly thinner, certainly greyer, and his grey eyes had become even more deeply hooded, so that the resemblance to some far-seeing, sharp-beaked raptor was more marked than ever. No, his body had only exaggerated itself; the greatest changes were internal. The fierce passions that had driven him in his early years, years before I was even born, had subsided, and the agonies of frustration he had felt when without a challenge, frustration that had led him to needles filled with cocaine and morphia, were now in abeyance. Or so I had thought.
I watched him as his long fingers caressed the much-travelled envelope and his eyes drew significance from every smudge, every characteristic of paper and ink and stamp, and it occurred to me suddenly that Sherlock Holmes was bored.
The thought was not a happy one. No person, certainly no woman, likes to think that her marriage has lessened the happiness of her partner. I thrust the troublesome idea from me, reached up to rub a twinge from my right shoulder, and spoke with a shade more irritation than was called for.
"My dear Holmes, this verges on deductio ad absurdum. Were you to open the envelope and identify the writer, it just might simplify matters."
"All in good time, Russell. I further note a partial set of grimy fingerprints along the back of the envelope, with a matching thumbprint on the front. However, I believe we can discount them, as they have the familiar look of the hands of our very own postal-delivery boy, whose bicycle chain is in constant need of repair."
"Holmes, my furtive patachs await me. The letter?"
"Patience is a necessary attribute of the detective's makeup, Russell. And, I should have thought, the scholar's. However, as you say." He turned away, and the sharp zip of a knife through cheap paper was followed by a dull thud as the knife was reintroduced into the frayed wood of the mantelpiece. There was a thin rustle. His voice sounded amused as he began to read. "'Dear Miss Russell,' it begins, dated four days ago.
Dear Miss Russell, I trust you will not be offended by my form of address. I am aware that you have married, but I cannot bring myself to assign a woman her husband's name unless I have been told that such is her desire. If you are offended, please forgive my unintentional faux pas.
You will perhaps remember me, Dorothy Ruskin, from your visit to Palestine several years ago. I have remained in that land since then, assisting at three preliminary digs until such time as I can arrange funding for my own excavations. I have been called back home for an interview by my potential sponsors, as well as to see my mother, who seems to be on her deathbed. There is a matter of some interest which I wish to lay before you while I am in England, and I would appreciate it if you would allow me to come and disturb your peace for a few hours. It would have to be on the twenty-second or twenty-third, as I return to Palestine directly my business is completed. Please confirm the day and time by telegram at the address below.
I believe the matter to be of some interest and potentially considerable importance to your chosen field of study, or I would not be bothering you and your husband.
Most affectionately yours,
"The address below is that of the Hotel Imperial," Holmes added.
I took the letter from Holmes and quickly skimmed the singular hand that strode across the flimsy hotel paper. "A decent pen, though," I noted absently. "Shall we see her?"
"We? My dear Russell, I am the husband of an emancipated woman who, although she may not yet vote in an election, is at least allowed to see her own friends without male chaperonage."
"Don't be an ass, Holmes. She obviously wants to see both of us, or she would not have written that last sentence. We'll have her for tea, then. Wednesday or Thursday?"
"Wednesday is Mrs Hudson's half day. Miss Ruskin might have a better tea if she came Thursday."
"Thank you, Holmes," I said with asperity. I admit that cooking is not my strong point, but I object to having my nose rubbed in the fact. "I'll write to let her know either day is fine but that Thursday is slightly better. I wonder what she wants."
"Funding for an all-woman archaeological dig, I shouldn't wonder. That would be popular with the British authorities and the Zionists, would it not? And think of the attraction it would have for the pilgrims and the tourists. It's a wonder the Americans haven't thought of it."
"Holmes, enough! Begone! I have work to do."
"Come for a walk."
"Not just now. Perhaps this evening I could take an hour off."
"By this evening, you will be bogged down to the axles in the prophet Isaiah's mud and too irritable to make a decent walking companion. You've been rubbing your bad shoulder for the last forty minutes although it is a warm afternoon, which means you need to get out and breathe some fresh air. Come."
He held out one long hand to me. I looked down at the cramped lines marching across the page, capped my pen, and allowed him to pull me to my feet.
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about A Letter of Mary are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach A Letter of Mary.
1. In the beginning of the novel, Mary Russell is presented with two artifacts, both of uncertain origin: a box that may have belonged to T. E. Lawrence of the Arab Revolt, and a letter on papyrus that appears to have been written by Mary Magdalene. Do you agree that artifacts, like oral histories, don't always tell the truth? Discuss how Laurie R. King describes the box and the papyrus, and the ways in which they serve as metaphor for how history is recorded and how it changes over time.
2. It has been over eight years since Russell first met Holmes, and they are now settled in the comfortable routines of marriage. Russell can deduce Holmes' mood merely by observing his newspaper reading habits ("an unread newspaper meant an unsettled mind"). Does this sensitivity surprise you? In what ways does marriage seem to have changed Russell since the earlier books in the series? In what ways is theirs a typical marriage, how is it unusual, and how do you see the relationship developing in future volumes? Are all of us, in a sense, detectives, making deductions and trying to understand the behavior of the people we know and love?
3. If you were in Russell's shoes, would you experience the same pressure and guilt that she feels regarding whether to go public with the letter? How do you think the letter would alter the course of human history, of Christianity? What would it mean to the world if a woman were historically raised to the prominence of an apostle?
4. What was your reaction to Mycroft's debriefing on Ruskin's involvement in the Friends of Palestine, and her relationship with Colonel Edwards? Discuss the ways in which King weaves thethreads of the plot together in this scene, especially how Ruskin's sister, Erica, and the two Arab men who visited Erica's home prior to Ruskin's murder, are brought into the story. As the plot thickens, how does your understanding of Ruskin's life, work, and motives change?
5. When Russell goes undercover as Mary Small, she admits an attraction to both Colonel Edwards and to his son. Was this admission surprising to you? What do you think of the later scene in which Russell allows the Colonel to kiss her wrist? In what ways does this sexual dimension change Russell's character does it make her stronger, more vulnerable, more whimsical?
6. Moreover, what parallels can be drawn between Russell's moment of weakness with Colonel Edwards and the story of Mary Magdalene? "I was filled with admiration for the pure, distilled strength of the woman, with her simple, deadly decisionsand for the first time I wondered what had become of the granddaughter, Rachel, how old she had been, if she made it safely to Magdala," Russell writes. What themes are reflected in this passage, and have been running throughout the course of the book? How do these themes affect all the women in this novel?
7. What was your reaction when you read Ruskin's letter to her sister dated November 22, 1920? How well did the contents within support Holmes' previous deduction of Erica's character based on her handwriting?
8. Although the title refers mainly to the letter written by Mary Magdalene, there are several letters throughout the book. In the last paragraph, Russell mentions three main letters, and still there are several others. How does King use letter writing as a device to move the story forward, and as a metaphor for the voice of history?