Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pulitzers and Review: Pirate King

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today, and for the first time in 35 years, there has not been a fiction prize awarded.  I've not read any of the three finalists for the Pulitzer, but I find it odd that none of them won.  After all, if you're a finalist for the Pulitzer, doesn't that, on some level, suggest that you are an author of a high enough caliber to win?

In any case, perusing the list, I was excited to see fellow academic and father of the critical theory of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt on the list for his new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  I'm a fan of Greenblatt's for several reasons--I use the Norton Shakespeare, for one thing, and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a delightful book.  That's not to mention that New Historicism is part of my own particular critical viewpoint (more folded in with cultural studies, though).  Obviously, anyone with as many honors as Greenblatt has doesn't need the help of a lowly graduate student blogger, but I think The Swerve is going to be a book I'm going to want to read. It deals with finding a manuscript by Lucretius called On the Nature of Things, which might be the first written work to definitively challenge the idea that nature required a God and which, among other things, posited the existence of atoms.  I think it might be helpful when it comes to my dissertation--at the very least, it's right up my scientific/literature alley.

On to the book review: Pirate King by Laurie King!  I've loved King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series ever since I picked up The Beekeeper's Apprentice five or six years ago.  Russell is Holmes apprentice of sorts, and she does eventually end up marrying him.  It's highly entertaining to watch Russell go through all sorts of madcap adventures (some more so than others), outwit Holmes at his own game, and generally solve all sorts of problems in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (though I have to wonder if Holmes isn't getting a bit old now, since Pirate King was set in 1924, though apparently only ten years have passed since the beginning of the series).

That said, Pirate King is definitely one of Russell's more madcap adventures, to the point where the plot is almost too tangled to pick apart.  But the plot is designed to be this way, as Russell (and Holmes, by extension) is investigating a mystery involving a silent film company who is making a movie which--if I understand this correctly, and I'm not sure that I do--is about a silent film company making an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

Yes, I'll let the silent film of a silent film of a musical part sink in for a moment.

In any case, hiring of pirates, an insane voyage over the Mediterranean where Russell must shepherd 13 young actresses, a kidnapping and heroic escape all ensue.  One thing I did notice was that there was quite a bit of what we academics would refer to as gender-bending.  One of the actresses is actually an actor dressed up as a girl.  There's also quite a bit of reference to some of the characters possibly being gay.

This strikes me as odd for one reason in particular.  Though sexual attitudes got progressively more open after the turn of the century, 1924 was still only thirty years after Oscar Wilde's trial.  While World War I had opened up a lot of new ideas, the odds of a proper lady thinking about the possibility of homosexual activity would have been unusual.  Now, granted, Mary Russell is never truly depicted as a proper lady, but the previous novels had been very much more in character with contemporary literature of the fin de siecle.

I'm not suggesting that people didn't know or talk about homosexuality in that era--obviously that's not true.  I suppose to a certain extent, I've been so deeply stuck in Victorian literature for the past several months that anything that would have been considered "transgressive" during that time period strikes me as odd--anything Sherlockian seems like it needs to be firmly Victorian, though Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories were written from 1881-1927.  But I do think that this is symptomatic of a larger problem that King is having as she progresses through the Mary Russell series.  It almost feels as if the previous novels were more carefully researched and set than these later novels. King has said that Russell is what Holmes would be if he was a woman, of the twentieth century, and interested in theology.  I think the problem is in the twentieth century.  Mary Russell might be, dare I say it, too progressive for the time period?

Maybe I'm wrong, but something seemed a little bit off about this novel, and this was the only thing that straight out jumped out at me as being that little bit odd.  It still is a rip-roaring adventure, though a bit slower paced than I remember some of the other Mary Russell novels being (despite the seeming frenetic pace of the action Russell seems to be amidst), Holmes makes his surprise appearance, and Mary saves the day with her philological talents.  It's not the best of the Mary Russell novels, but it's hardly the worst detective story I've ever read. (I'm looking at you, Catherine Coulter and James Patterson).

Pirate King - B


  1. Interesting review. I adore BEEK, am troubled about MONS, love LETT, and after that kind of check out (I keep reading, but stopped really caring). I agree that Pirate King felt especially off, but not my an order of magnitude.

    King has stated that Holmes and Russell are still alive today...the rather annoying "Royal Jelly" hypothesis (which Neil Gaiman actually made palatable in his recent "The Case of Death and Honey" in A Study in Sherlock) which says that Holmes eats special honey and lives forever.

    As for the mores of the time, I think King's going for a more Dorothy Sayers era than an Edwardian era (especially since Peter Wimsey is a cameo (which got her in big big trouble with the Sayers estate, sadly)). Sayers wasn't as open about the bohemian lifestyles of some of her characters, but it was definitely there, and King's probably just going with that.

    Funny that that bothered you in this novel and not in Justice Hall or Language of Bees.

    1. I think the reason it bothered me here was because I've just spent the last eight months knee deep in Victorian and Edwardian study, which I had not done when I was reading the earlier novels. I am sad to hear that a simple cameo got King in trouble, though, as it seems to be a sincere form of flattery. I've not read Sayer's work, but I am curious now. In any case, being a Victorianist on my part means I turn what is probably a hypercritical eye to this time period.

    2. Oh, my. I highly, highly recommend Sayers - beautiful style, and wonderful characters. Plus, they are contemporary fiction, so they offer a fascinating window onto the period (though naturally heightened for effect and humor).