Winner of the Nero Wolfe Award
It is 1921 and Mary RussellSherlock Holmes's brilliant apprentice, now an Oxford graduate with a degree in theologyis on the verge of acquiring a sizable inheritance. Independent at last, with a passion for divinity and detective work, her most baffling mystery may now involve Holmes and the burgeoning of a deeper affection between herself and the retired detective. Russell's attentions turn to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe, a charismatic suffragette and a mystic, whose draw on the young theology scholar is irresistible. But when four bluestockings from the Temple turn up dead shortly after changing their wills, could sins of a capital nature be afoot? Holmes and Russell investigate, as their partnership takes a surprising turn in A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King.
About the Author
Laurie R. King is the Edgar Award–winning author of the Kate Martinelli novels, the acclaimed Mary Russell mysteries, and several stand-alone novels, including the highly praised A Darker Place. She lives in northern California.
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A Monstrous Regiment of Women
A Mary Russell Novel
By Laurie R. King
Picador and St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Laurie R. King
All rights reserved.
SUNDAY, 26 DECEMBER–MONDAY, 27 DECEMBER 1920
Womankind is imprudent and soft or flexible. Imprudent because she cannot consider with wisdom and reason the things she hears and sees; and soft she is because she is easily bowed.
— JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (c. 347–407)
I SAT BACK in my chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months' hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fête which had reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunt's control of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to my twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.
My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant that the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about my choice of goals — I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner, and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence also the trepidation.
In rebellion against the houseful of velvet and silk through which I had moved for what seemed like weeks, I pulled from the wardrobe the most moth-eaten of my long-dead father's suits and put it on over a deliciously soft and threadbare linen shirt and a heavy Guernsey pullover I had rescued from the mice in the attic. Warm, lined doeskin gloves, my plaits pinned up under an oversized tweed cap, thick scarf, and a pause for thought. Whatever I was going to do for the next three or four days, it would be at a distance from home. I went to the chest of drawers and took out an extra pair of wool stockings, and from a secret niche behind the wainscotting I retrieved a leather pouch, in which I had secreted all the odd notes and coins of unspent gifts and allowances over the last couple of years — a considerable number, I was pleased to see. The pouch went into an inner pocket along with a pencil stub, some folded sheets of paper, and a small book on Rabbi Akiva that I'd been saving for a treat. I took a last look at my refuge, locked the door behind me, and carried my rubber-soled boots to the back door to lace them on.
Although I half-hoped that one of my relatives might hail me, they were all either busy with the games in the parlour or unconscious in a bloated stupor, because the only persons I saw were the red-faced cook and her harassed helper, and they were too busy preparing yet another meal to do more than return my greetings distractedly. I wondered idly how much I was paying them to work on the day a servant traditionally expected to have free, but I shrugged off the thought, put on my boots and the dingy overcoat I kept at the back of the cupboard beneath the stairs, and escaped from the overheated, overcrowded, emotion-laden house into the clear, cold sea air of the Sussex Downs. My breath smoked around me and my feet crunched across patches not yet thawed by the watery sunlight, and by the time I reached Holmes' cottage five miles away, I felt clean and calm for the first time since leaving Oxford at the end of term.
He was not at home.
Mrs Hudson was there, though. I kissed her affectionately and admired the needlework she was doing in front of the kitchen fire, and teased her about her slack ways on her free days and she tartly informed me that she wore her apron only when she was on duty, and I commented that in that case she must surely wear it over her nightdress, because as far as I could see she was always on duty when Holmes was about, and why didn't she come and take over my house in seven days' time and I'd be sure to appreciate her, but she only laughed, knowing I didn't mean it, and put the kettle on the fire.
He had gone to Town, she said, dressed in a multitude of mismatched layers, two scarfs, and a frayed and filthy silk hat — and did I prefer scones or muffins?
"Are the muffins already made?"
"Oh, there are a few left from yesterday, but I'll make fresh."
"On your one day off during the year? You'll do nothing of the sort. I adore your muffins toasted — you know that — and they're better the second day, anyway."
She let herself be persuaded. I went up to Holmes' room and conducted a judicious search of his chest of drawers and cupboards while she assembled the necessaries. As I expected, he had taken the fingerless gloves he used for driving horses and the tool for prising stones from hoofs; in combination with the hat, it meant he was driving a horsecab. I went back down to the kitchen, humming.
I toasted muffins over the fire and gossiped happily with Mrs Hudson until it was time for me to leave, replete with muffins, butter, jam, anchovy toast, two slices of Christmas cake, and a waxed paper-wrapped parcel in my pocket, in order to catch the 4:43 to London.
I used occasionally to wonder why the otherwise canny folk of the nearby towns, and particularly the stationmasters who sold the tickets, did not remark at the regular appearance of odd characters on their platforms, one old and one young, of either sex, often together. Not until the previous summer had I realised that our disguises were treated as a communal scheme by our villagers, who made it a point of honour never to let slip their suspicions that the scruffy young male farmhand who slouched through the streets might be the same person who, dressed considerably more appropriately in tweed skirt and cloche hat, went off to Oxford during term time and returned to buy tea cakes and spades and the occasional half-pint of bitter from the merchants when she was in residence. I believe that had a reporter from the Evening Standard come to town and offered one hundred pounds for an inside story on the famous detective, the people would have looked at him with that phlegmatic country expression that hides so much and asked politely who he might be meaning.
I digress. When I reached London, the streets were still crowded. I took a taxi (a motor cab, so I hadn't to look too closely at the driver) to the agency Holmes often used as his supplier when he needed a horse and cab. The owner knew me — at least, he recognised the young man who stood in front of him — and said that, yes, that gentleman (not meaning, of course, a gentleman proper) had indeed shown up for work that day. In fact, he'd shown up twice.
"Twice? You mean he brought the cab back, then?" I was disappointed, and wondered if I ought merely to give up the chase.
"T'orse 'ad an 'ot knee, an' 'e walked 'er back. 'E was about ter take out anuvver un when 'e 'appened t'see an ol' 'anson just come in. Took a fancy, 'e did, can't fink why —'s bloody cold work an' the pay's piss-all, 'less you 'appen on t' odd pair what wants a taste of t' old days, for a lark. 'Appens, sometimes, come a summer Sunday, or after t' theatre Sattiday. Night like this 'e'd be bloody lucky t'get a ha'penny over fare."
With a straight face, I reflected privately on how his colourful language would have faded in the light of the posh young lady I occasionally was.
"So he took the hansom?"
"That 'e did. One of the few what can drive the thing, I'll give 'im that." His square face contemplated for a moment this incongruous juxtaposition of skill and madness in the man he knew as Basil Josephs, then he shook his head in wonderment. "'Ad ta give 'im a right bugger of an 'orse, though. Never been on a two-wheeler, 'e 'asn't, and plug-headed and leather-mouthed to boot. 'Ope old Josephs 'asn't 'ad any problems," he said with a magnificent lack of concern, and leant over to hawk and spit delicately into the noisome gutter.
"Well," I said, "there couldn't be too many hansoms around, I might spot him tonight. Can you tell me what the horse looks like?"
"Big bay, wide blaze, three stockin's with t' off hind dark, nasty eyes, but you won't see 'em —'e's got blinkers on," he rattled off, then added after a moment, "Cab's number two-ninety-two." I thanked him with a coin and went a- hunting through the vast, sprawling streets of the great cesspool for a single, worn hansom cab and its driver.
The hunt was not quite so hopeless as it might appear. Unless he were on a case (and Mrs Hudson had thought on the whole that he was not), his choice of clothing and cab suggested entertainment rather than employment, and his idea of entertainment tended more toward London's east end rather than Piccadilly or St John's Wood. Still, that left a fair acreage to choose from, and I spent several hours standing under lampposts, craning to see the feet of passing horses (all of them seemed to have blazes and stockings) and fending off friendly overtures from dangerously underdressed young and not-so-young women. Finally, just after midnight, one marvelously informative conversation with such a lady was interrupted by the approaching clop and grind of a trotting horsecab, and a moment later the piercing tones of a familiar voice echoing down the nearly deserted street obviated the need for any further equine examination.
"Annalisa, my dear young thing," came the voice that was not a shout but which could be heard a mile away on the Downs, "isn't that child you are trying to entice a bit young, even for you? Look at him — he doesn't even have a beard yet."
The lady beside me whirled around to the source of this interruption. I excused myself politely and stepped out into the street to intercept the cab. He had a fare — or rather, two — but he slowed, gathered the reins into his right hand, and reached the other long arm down to me. My disappointed paramour shouted genial insults at Holmes that would have blistered the remaining paint from the woodwork, had they not been deflected by his equally jovial remarks in kind.
The alarming dip of the cab caused the horse to snort and veer sharply, and a startled, moustachioed face appeared behind the cracked glass of the side window, scowling at me. Holmes redirected his tongue's wrath from the prostitute to the horse and, in the best tradition of London cabbies, cursed the animal soundly, imaginatively, and without a single manifest obscenity. He also more usefully snapped the horse's head back with one clean jerk on the reins, returning its attention to the job at hand, while continuing to pull me up and shooting a parting volley of affectionate and remarkably familiar remarks at the fading Annalisa. Holmes did so like to immerse himself fully in his rôles, I reflected as I wedged myself into the one-person seat already occupied by the man and his garments.
"Good evening, Holmes," I greeted him politely.
"Good morning, Russell," he corrected me, and shook the horse back into a trot.
"Are you on a job, Holmes?" I had known as soon as his arm reached down for me that if case it were, it did not involve the current passengers, or he should merely have waved me off.
"My dear Russell, those Americanisms of yours," he tut-tutted. "How they do grate on the ear. 'On a job.' No, I am not occupied with a case, Russell, merely working at the maintenance of old skills."
"And are you having fun?"
"'Having fun'?" He pronounced the words with fastidious distaste and looked at me askance.
"Very well: Are you enjoying yourself?"
He raised one eyebrow at my clothes before turning back to the reins.
"I might ask the same of you, Russell."
"Yes," I replied. "As a matter of fact, I am enjoying myself, Holmes, very much, thank you." And I sat back as best I could to do so.
Traffic even in the middle of London tends to die down considerably by the close of what Christians mistakenly call the Sabbath, and the streets were about as quiet now as they ever were. It was very pleasant being jolted about in a swaying seat eight feet above the insalubrious cobblestones, next to my one true friend, through the ill-lit streets that echoed the horse's hoofs and the grind of the wheels, on a night cold enough to kill the smells and keep the fog at bay, but not cold enough to damage exposed flesh and fingertips. I glanced down at my companion's begrimed fingers where they were poised, testing the heavy leather for signs of misbehaviour from the still-fractious beast with the same sensitivity they exhibited in all their activities, from delicate chemical experiments to the tactile exploration of a clue. I was struck by a thought.
"Holmes, do you find that the cold on a clear night exacerbates your rheumatism as much as the cold of a foggy night?"
He fixed me with a dubious eye, then turned back to the job, lips no doubt pursed beneath the scarfs. It was, I realised belatedly, an unconventional opening for a conversation, but surely Holmes, of all people, could not object to the eccentric.
"Russell," he said finally, "it is very good of you to have come up from Sussex and stood on cold street corners for half the night striking up inappropriate friendships and flirting with pneumonia in order to enquire after my health, but perhaps having found me, you might proceed with your intended purpose."
"I had no purpose," I protested, stung. "I finished my paper more quickly than I'd thought, felt like spending the rest of the day with you rather than listening to my relations shrieking and moaning downstairs, and, when I found you missing, decided on a whim to follow you here and see if I might track you down. It was merely a whim," I repeated firmly. Perhaps too firmly. I hastened to change the subject. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Driving a cab," he said in a voice that told me that he was neither distracted nor deceived. "Go on, Russell, you may as well ask your question; you've spent seven hours in getting here. Or perhaps I ought to say, six years?"
"What on earth are you talking about?" I was very cross at the threat of having my nice evening spoilt by his sardonic, all-knowing air, though God knows, I should have been used to it by then. "I am having a holiday from the holidays. I am relaxing, following the enforced merriment of the last week. An amusing diversion, Holmes, nothing else. At least it was, until your suspicious mind let fly with its sneering intimations of omniscience. Really, Holmes, you can be very irritating at times."
He seemed not in the least put out by my ruffled feathers, and he arched his eyebrow and glanced sideways at me to let me know it. I put up my chin and looked in the other direction.
"So you did not 'track me down,' as you put it, for any express purpose, other than as an exercise in tracking?"
"And for the pleasurable exercise of freedom, yes."
"You are lying, Russell."
"Holmes, this is intolerable. If you wish to be rid of me, all you need do is slow down and let me jump off. You needn't be offensive to me. I'll go."
"Russell, Russell," he chided, and shook his head.
"Damn it, Holmes, what can you imagine was so urgent that I should come all the way here in order to confront you with it immediately? Which, you may have noticed, I have not done?"
"A question you finally nerved yourself up to ask, and the momentum carried you along," he answered coolly.
"And what question might that be?" I did leave myself right open for it, but once launched in a path, it is difficult to change direction.
"I expect you came to ask me to marry you."
I nearly fell off the back of the cab.
Excerpted from A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 1995 Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Picador and St. Martin's Press.
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Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about A Monstrous Regiment of Women 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 Monstrous Regiment of Women.
1. Throughout the novel, Laurie King plays with the idea of religion fulfilling not just spiritual but earthly needs, e.g. in the way that Margery Childe responds to the political desires of independent women, and also in the brief passage in which Veronica recounts her time in Italy, and her crush on a handsome priest. What does King's novel say about the intersection of religious and secular life, or the relationship between the two? To what degree does each character know what they want, and how to get it?
2. Margery Childe gives more than one radical reading of the first lines of Genesis, exploring not only the power of creation but of love. While Mary is always keen to scrutinize Childe's theology, what is the deeper affect of Childe's sermons on Mary? In what ways does King play with the age-old struggle between faith and reason in the novel? Are "faith" and "reason" at play as well when a man and woman are falling in love?
3. Is a mystery novel propelled by the movement of its plot or the dimension of its characters? In A Monstrous Regiment of Women the characters arrive with considerable depth and pathos. Margery Childe is described: "She shut her eyes for a long moment. When she openedthem, the magic had gone out of her, and she was just a small, tired, disheveled woman in an expensive dress, with a much-needed drink and cigarette to hand." In what ways do such descriptions and depth enhance the mystery and suspense of the story?
4. Laurie King draws significantly upon the history of the feminist movement in England. Would you say the book itself has a political point of view? What do you see as the difference between the feminist movements of then and now?
5. The Great War brought with it considerable social upheaval. In what ways does King show the impact of the war upon her characters – From Miles, Ronnie's fiancé, to Mary Russell and to Holmes himself?
6. From the food, to the wall hangings, to the style of dress, to the social and political attitudes of each character, to the presence of narcotics, Laurie King adorns and enriches her story with much historical detail. In what ways do these details, both small and large, help evoke the world of the story? What details were the most surprising to you?
7. In the Conan Doyle books, Watson at times seems like a surrogate for the reader, whom Holmes guides through the intricacies of the mystery. Could the same be said of Mary Russell? What are the differences between how she and Watson tell a story?
8. Both Mary Russell and Margery Childe come into a great deal of money, and both certainly have a taste for luxury. What moral dilemma do they face each time they spend money? Is Laurie King saying something about the moral implications of wealth? Of charity?
9. Perhaps humanity's greatest mystery is that of its existence, and some would say that the Bible is the case file of that mystery. Discuss the theological point of view of Monstrous Regiment, and how Mary's journey deep into the Bible at once illuminates the novel's ideas – about money, love, faith, and charity – and how it helps to move the mystery forward.
10. At the end of this book, a twenty-one year old woman marries a fifty-nine year old man. Does this strike you as outside, or within, the social norms of the time? In what ways do Russell and Holmes seem to reflect the values of their age, and in what ways do they seem progressive or ahead of their time? Do you think that historical fiction sometimes tends to overstate the propriety of that day and age? What seems to be King's take?