(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Laurie R. King’s versatility as a writer allows her to span time periods and to write convincingly of places as diverse as World War I-era England, the Middle East, British India during the 1920’s, and present-day San Francisco. King’s lifetime love of reading is evident in the fun she so clearly has in paying homage to her favorite books and writers. The Mary Russell series, for example, not only plays with characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works but also features “guest appearances” by other characters both real and fictional, including the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), scholar and folklorist, in The Moor (1998); a glimpse of T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), the legendary British soldier known as Lawrence of Arabia, in O Jerusalem (1999); Rudyard Kipling’s character Kim in The Game (2004); and crime writer Dashiell Hammett in Locked Rooms (2005). Possibly unable to resist cross-pollination, King brought a mysterious manuscript that may have been written by Sherlock Holmes himself into Kate Martinelli’s world in The Art of Detection (2006).

Beyond the games and literary name-dropping, however, is a writer of serious intent and considerable skill. King’s novels take on emotionally charged and sometimes controversial themes, from feminism to religious beliefs, all within the context of an elegantly plotted mystery. Although the crime and its investigation exist as a stage for the characters to play out their desires and conflicts, it is ultimately the characters who matter. As King said, she does not write whodunits; she writes stories about people within the format of the mystery novel.

A Grave Talent

In A Grave Talent, the brutal murder of three small girls, all of kindergarten age and in the San Francisco Bay area, prompts police officials to team veteran investigator Alonzo “Al” Hawkin with a junior partner: Katarina Cecilia Martinelli, known as Casey (K.C.), or Kate, to her friends. Initially, Al is reluctant to work with Kate, who has only a year’s experience as a detective, and she is wary of his reputation as the terror of the force. However, police protocol determines that when children are involved, a woman should be part of the investigation. It is this sort of casual assumption about women’s roles that underscores a central theme of A Grave Talent: the struggle of women to be who they are in a culture that prefers to place them safely within domestic roles. This theme is highlighted when suspicion falls on Vaun Adams, a woman artist who has served time in jail for a child murder, and Kate and her lover, Lee Cooper, debate the old question of why there are so few great women artists. Are women who defy norms—choosing art, for example, rather than marriage and family—bound to be twisted, perhaps even dangerous?

Choosing to obey or defy behavioral norms for women is also, for Kate, a personal conflict, because Lee, her lover, is a woman. Kate keeps her private life carefully guarded, fearing discrimination from fellow police officers and from the public, but her need to separate her public and private selves causes both internal tension and conflict within her relationship. As Kate and Al learn more about Vaun Adams and get closer to finding the truth about the child murders, Kate must also come to terms with her own...

(The entire section is 1382 words.)