Review of “The Art of Detection”, by Laurie R. King

In 2004, when I spoke with mystery author Laurie R. King, she told me that she was about to start work on another mystery featuring Kate Martinelli, a San Francisco cop and a lesbian. The first Martinelli novel, A Grave Talent, which was published in 1993, was also King’s first published novel and won both the Edgar and Creasey Awards that year—no small feat for a new mystery writer.

Three other Martinelli novels followed: To Play the Fool in 1995, about religion; With Child in 1996, which was more of a character study on Kate herself; and Night Work in 2000, which tackled feminist activism. You can always depend on King to take on difficult subjects (particularly religion) with complexity, which is possibly due to the fact that she earned her master’s degree in Old Testament Theology.

But after Night Work, King took a break from Martinelli, spending most of her time writing a historical mystery series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, and a number of standalone novels. For those who have been waiting for a new Kate Martinelli novel, the wait has been long, indeed.

This May, at last, the latest Kate Martinelli novel, The Art of Detection, is scheduled to hit the shelves. In the years that have passed between Night Work and The Art of Detection, Kate has undergone some significant changes. She and her partner, psychotherapist Leonora (Lee) Cooper, have moved out of their Russian Hill home into the heart of Noe Valley, a family-centered neighborhood in San Francisco. She and Lee, who was handicapped by a stray bullet in A Grave Talent (1993), have also had a child together, the young and precocious Nora.

But work-wise, things are much the same for Kate: She still works with the unflappable Al Hawkin, and Kate still approaches her job like a job, albeit on that she is quite interested in—something that is unusual for fictional cops, who often tend to drink themselves into a stupor as they comb the mean streets for hardened criminals.

The Art of Detection opens with the discovery of a body in an abandoned missile emplacement on the Marin headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. When Kate and Al, who are called to the scene, finally track down the deceased’s identity, they discover that his name was Philip Gilbert, that he lived in San Francisco, and that he had a most unusual hobby—he was a Sherlock Holmes fan, in the true fanatic sense. The first two floors of his house are decorated just like Holmes’s fictional residence, right down to authentic gas lights and a scuttle stocked with coal.

But Gilbert was more than a man who loved to play dress-up—he was also a serious collector of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, and much of his collection was quite valuable. Kate and Al soon learn that one of his most recent acquisitions, a manuscript that might be a newly discovered, “lost” story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has a curious link to the crime: Gilbert’s body was discovered in the same location as the dead body in the manuscript.

Once Kate realizes that there may be a link between the manuscript (which would be worth a fortune if it really were a lost Conan Doyle story) and Gilbert’s murder, she sits down to read the entire story, and this is where The Art of Detection intersects with King’s other series on Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. The manuscript is a story about a Holmes-like figure who visited San Francisco in the 1920s and investigated the murder of a soldier.

The tale, which is published in its entirety within the pages of The Art of Detection, is a solid bit of period storytelling, and clearly relies on King’s familiarity with Holmes. What’s most interesting about the story is that it focuses on the seamier side of San Francisco in the ’20s—in particular, male transvestites and prostitutes—and King’s meticulous attention to historical detail (including forensics circa 1924) is obvious as always.

Back in the 21st century, Kate tracks down Gilbert’s circle of friends, who regularly gathered together in his home while dressed in period costume, as part of their fascination with Sherlock Holmes. Bit by bit, as piece after piece of evidence is uncovered, the murder investigation and the historical mystery come closer and closer together. But although the historical mystery story is fascinating in its own right, I felt that in some ways it detracted from the wider novel.

Including a 100-page story within the pages of the novel meant that a significant portion of The Art of Detection was not about Kate Martinelli at all, and after waiting for six years, well, I wanted more about Kate. The hard-working, somewhat unorthodox, determined and altogether admirable lesbian cop of previous Martinelli novels seems to have vanished into satisfied motherhood.

Though Kate still pounds the pavement in The Art of Detection, she lacks the gritty resolve of the earlier books; it’s as if moving to Noe Valley shaved off much of her personality—or, perhaps taking a six-year break from writing the series has meant that King has at some level forgotten what made Kate so memorable in the first place.

On the other hand, the detective in the historical mystery story fairly leaps off the page with his quirky mannerisms and Holmesian deductions. It seems as though King is more interested in the historical mystery than in the present-day one; even the supporting characters in the historical portion are more three-dimensional than those in the 21st-century portion.

I have to admit, as well, that I found the historical mystery to be more convincing than the modern-day one, but with a clever bit of manipulation of current events, King manages to wrap up the novel on a positive—one might even say cheesy—note which, incidentally, she hinted at in her 2004 interview.

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