Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

36296239Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad is the fifteenth entry in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which imagines the characters as a married couple who are always willing to dive into a new case. This episode is set in 1925 and sees the pair on the trail of a woman who, formerly an inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital, disappears into thin air during the festivities of her marquess brother’s birthday.

Vivian Beaconsfield is the aunt of Mary’s good friend so, when that friend asks Mary to find out where Vivian went, Mary can only agree. Besides, if Russell and Holmes don’t have a case, they tend to get a little itchy. Mary starts asking questions at the family estate—Vivian’s last known location. Holmes snoops around London to see if Vivian pawned her share of the family jewels. The trail leads to Venice and Mary and Holmes set off in hot pursuit.

Unlike some of the other books in the series, Island of the Mad doesn’t seem to be about solving a mystery so much as it is about the setting. Mary and Holmes—who also has a task from his brother, Mycroft, to perform—decide to divide and conquer. Mary puts on the disguise of a Bright Young Thing and hangs around Venice’s Lido, hoping to catch word of Vivian among scads of people intent on having a great time. Holmes sidles up to Cole Porter, where he might catch word of Vivian through the artistic crowd. Readers who know the songwriter’s oeuvre will be tickled pink at all the references to his songs.

01APREnr-7-terrazza-hotel-excelsior
Venice’s Hotel Excelsior, c. 1914, where a lot of the book’s action takes place.
(Image via Panorama)

The pairs’ points of view show the frenetic decadence of the Roaring 1920s. Everyone drinks and parties like it’s their last day on earth. As a dark counterpoint to all this high-octane frivolity, Blackshirts roam the city in increasing numbers and throwing their weight around. It doesn’t take too long to see the dichotomy of the times. On the one hand, you’ve got the live-and-let-live crowd. On the other, there are fascists who will violently assert their version of how they think people should live.

Island of the Mad is a mostly languid mystery, with most of the action crammed at the end. Readers should be prepared for regular doses of Venetian history and plenty of foreshadowing about what the fascists are going to get up to in about a decade. Even though it’s not the most gripping of mysteries, Island of the Mad is an entertaining jaunt to the height of the 1920s in always popular Venice. The scenery is so richly described that I started to feel like should put on some sunblock as well as Russell as she zips up and down the canals. This is very much a summer read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

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