Saturday, January 5, 2008

Why King Is the Queen

Everything Laurie R. King writes is first-class, from her modern, totally feminist and often surprisingly touching Kate Martinelli mysteries to her Mary Russell thrillers which manage to carry on with (and improve upon) Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and give him a new life. Her new novel, TOUCHSTONE, is one of the best books of any kind of 2007 -- a terrific combination and culmination of her work so far.

Nobody knows better than King how to capture our attention. "Eight days after stepping off the Spirit of New Orleans from New York, Harris Stuyvesant nearly killed a man. The fact of the near-homicide did not surprise him; that it had taken him eight days to get there, considering the circumstances, was downright astonishing," she writes as she introduces us to one of her main characters, a tough, shrewd agent with J. Edgar Hoover's new American Bureau of Investigation. It's 1926, many years before Hoover changed the agency's name to the FBI and started wearing women's clothes in private. Stuyvestant, a veteran of World War I's worst trenches, is in London where the General Strike started by coal miners has threatened to spread. He's hot on the trail of an anarchist bomber named Richard Bunsen who has already eluded him and caused serious damage to people he loves.

Bunsen is a worthy and frightening adversary, but the book's other villain -- a power-mad Military Intelligence officer named Aldous Carstairs ("What kind of pansy handle is that?" Stuyvestant wonders when he first hears about him) -- is truly scary. "The man behind the desk was in his early forties, slightly older than Harris Stuyvesant, and smooth: dark, oiled hair, the sheen of manicured fingernails, a perfectly knotted silk tie, and nary a wrinkle on his spotless shirt. A visitor's gaze might have slid right off him had they not caught on his striking eyes and unlikely mouth.

"The eyes were an unrelieved black, with irises so dark they looked like vastly dilated pupils. They reminded Stuyvesant of a wealthy Parisian courtesan he'd known once who attributed her success to belladonna, used to simulate wide-eyed fascination in the gaze she turned upon her clientele... Personally, her eyes had made Stuyvesant uneasy, because they'd robbed him of that subtle and incontrovertible flare of true interest. This man's eyes were the same; they looked like the doorway to an unlit and windowless room, a room from which anyone at all might be looking out."

Carstairs, for reasons very much his own, agrees to help the American in his search for Bunsen. He sends Harris to a remote part of Cornwall, down near Land's End in the Southeast corner of the country. That's where another important character -- Capt. Bennett Grey, a man who came extremely close to death in the same trenches where Stuyvestant suffered -- is hiding out, drinking to keep his pain under control. Grey is the "touchstone" of King's title ("a soft stone used to prove the purity of gold or silver"). He has, probably because of his severe injuries, extraordinary mental powers, including the ability to conjure up what he calls "mixed metaphors of perception. Dissonance might be a closer description," he tells Harris. "I came across a fake Rembrandt portrait a while ago; standing in front of it was like being assaulted by the clamor of a dozen mismatched bells, out of tune and very disturbing."

Carstairs has been observing Grey for some years, because he recognizes how powerful his gifts could be in the intelligence and political world. Grey hates Carstairs for the evil he senses in him, and the pain he seems to enjoy inflicting. But Grey also loves two very different women who are deeply involved in the Bunsen search. Grey's former lover, Laura Hurleigh, is the oldest child of a Mitford-like family who live in an astonishing house in Oxfordshire -- a place where an ancestor fought off the chill by installing a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system designed by the Romans, and where extra guests stay in The Barn, not in beds of straw but in beautifully and ingeniously designed (and described) theme rooms.

Stuyvestant (in his role as an executive of Ford Motors in England to stimulate sales) has come to Hurleigh to meet Laura -- who is Bunsen's lover -- through her chief assistant, Sarah Grey, Bennett's younger sister, also deeply involved in Laura's work of helping and healing the poor. Both are formidable and fascinating characters, who play important parts in the book's stunning climax.

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