Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies (2015)

by Mark Wallace

Of all the paratexts of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Laurie R. King’s series of novels about Holmes and his younger sidekick and wife are perhaps the most highly regarded. 2015’s Dreaming Spies (Bantam Press) is the thirteenth in the series. Intriguingly, for me, the blurb announced that much of the action takes place on a ship called the Thomas Carlyle. This, I decided, must be my first point of call in reading King’s work.

First, the Carlyle connection. Carlyle’s position in the Doyle universe is established in the opening pages of A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.


This is a very famous passage, or at least the reference to Holmes’ ignorance of the sun is. Discussions rarely mention the Carlyle reference, and adaptations invariably omit it. The reason is obvious: while unawareness of the sun’s movement still stands as a reliable index of Holmes’ strange selective ignorance, Carlyle is no longer famous enough for the reference to him to have any force, or even comprehensibility. Even those who are familiar with Carlyle do not associate him with such fame as is suggested by Watson’s reaction. For reasons with nothing to do with Doyle’s writing, and everything to do with changes in Carlyle’s reputation, the reference no longer “works”.

Many scholars have pointed out that later on in Scarlet Holmes does evidence a familiarity with Carlyle’s work: “’They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’” This well-known definition is usually attributed to Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, where the quote actually runs: “‘Genius’ […] means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all.”

In any case, Holmes does later refer to Carlyle by name in Scarlet’s follow-up, The Sign of Four (1888), in a way that suggests considerable acquaintance. And, in general, Watson’s belief that Holmes knew nothing of literature is, time and again, proved erroneous, and has given much food for thought and tortuously ingenious speculation to Sherlockian scholars.

But to King. Though the early part of the book does indeed take place on a ship of the name mentioned, I was unable to discern any substantial significance in the name. It is significant to Sherlockians, of course, in being a canon reference, recalling the above quoted passage, but specific reference to Carlyle himself seems to be absent.

King’s book is narrated by Holmes’ companion, Mary Russell. Unlike Watson, she has an apparently rich inner life, and likes nothing better than to divulge the workings of her mind to the reader. Indeed, her narrative verges at times on running commentary, interrupting exchanges of dialogue and periods of actions with her own passing reflections thereon. Here we have much of the reason why this book weighs in at 380 pages, much more than any of Doyle’s stories.

Another related reason for the considerable length of the book is that Mary is much given to providing extensive background information on the places she goes and thinks she sees. As much of the book is set in or closely concerning Japan, this means we get a lot of extraneous information on that country. Doyle was famously cavalier about details, sending Holmes to Japan over the course of one line, and not even able to get that one line factually correct, in that he tells us Holmes learned the martial art “baritsu” there, rather than bartitsu. Doyle’s misspelling now has a Wikipedia entry of its own. Mistake or no, Doyle wore his knowledge or lack thereof lightly, while King/Russell cannot help parade theirs at every opportunity: divagations on the Bodleian Library, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, and various elements of Japanese culture are included, though they are, in many cases, of questionable relevance to the plot. A passing reference to Van Gogh is accompanied by the information that his “odd perspective and lively technique had, since his death a generation ago, been of growing interest to collectors” (293), a bizarrely general comment unrelated to the subject of the book. It is a sentence, indeed, that would be more at home in a book of art history.  A good, ruthless editor was what this book needed, although perhaps it says something about the contemporary Sherlockian that mini-lectures on high-culture play so large a part.

Dreaming Spies also performs one of my least favourite moves in the Sherlockian repertoire: it introduces the plot that goes to the very top. The integrity of the Emperor of Japan is at stake, and Britain’s Prince Regent is also involved at second-hand. This is an element of some of Doyle’s stories, too, and it is one I dislike. Holmes shouldn’t have to invoke a national emergency to be interesting; he certainly shouldn’t have to appeal to the emotional pull of the monarchy. Rather, the most fascinating of the stories are generally those set around a rather ordinary but perhaps eccentric person or household: the “obese, pompous and slow” tradesman Jabez Wilson; the irascible Grimsby Roylott and his vulnerable daughter; the sinister Rucastle household of “The Copper Beeches”; the down-at-heel Henry Baker of “The Blue Carbuncle”. When Doyle is reduced to invoking some massive threat to the government, or a compromised royal or noble in need of protecting, one can tell he’s on autopilot. But the attraction of this sort of plot among latter-day Sherlockians points to the nostalgia for a vanished order.

And this focus on royalty is really symptomatic of the universe of this novel. The milieu is purely aristocratic. The unthinking alignment with aristocracy is offputting: “Servants don’t need to like their employers – in some ways, it’s easier if they don’t – but a lack of respect undermines the whole machinery” (323). This concern with maintaining the social machinery illustrates the conservatism that underpins much contemporary affection for Sherlock Holmes, against which one would like to define a more dissident detective, had one only the time, energy and skill. To the same end is the endless detail on the Bodleian library, the repeated references to its exclusiveness and to Russell’s great familiarity with it: the world evoked is not the relatively open one of Doyle’s stories, wherein all classes could find a place. It is the aristocratic Oxford of dreaming spires, where only the hereditarily rich need apply. Revealing is the following reflection by Russell:

The Bodleian Library is one of the glories of the Western world – although, if the world (and the University) was a fair place, the institution would be called the “Ball Library”, after the wealthy widow Thomas Bodley had married. It was Ann Ball’s money (inherited from a trader in pilchards) that restored the library of Dulke Humfrey, stripped bare in the Reformation. (273)

Here is the fawning love of old-time aristocratic glory and its trappings; here the presence of pointless information that drags the novel down (this passage on the Bodleian’s history is in fact much longer than is quoted here); here also an truly asinine reflection on fairness – a cheap shot in favour of feminism, yes, but does it not occur to Russell that Ann Ball’s inheritance of wealth was no more worthy of commemoration than her husband’s marriage into it? Apparently not, and it’s the smugness and blindness of lines such as this that contributed greatly to my dislike of the novel. Not only did the novel bore me with Russell’s unnecessary background histories, but it began to actively annoy me as well.

And I’ll leave it at that. I can’t quite give up on King yet. I’ll have to read at least the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, to see how the whole thing began. Then, perhaps, I will have a better feel for the characters and more sympathy with them. As an earlier entry, too, it might be more streamlined and less indulgent. As the work of a younger writer, it might be less conservative and less in love with a mythic aristocratic past. Then, perhaps, I can begin to agree with the high praise this series has garnered.