Jun 28, 2010

A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King

A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King

A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second book in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, begins right after Christmas 1920, with an elated Mary Russell counting the days until her twenty-first birthday - when she’ll finally come into her fortune and be able to get rid of her guardian, an aunt with whom she doesn’t get along. However, her old friend Sherlock Holmes puts a damper on her good spirits when he makes a direct and somewhat mocking reference to the subtle change in her feelings towards him, which has been taking place for quite some time.

While she’s busy avoiding Holmes, Mary Russell meets Margery Child, a very charismatic woman who preaches at The New Temple of God and mixes unlearned theology with unapologetic feminism. Mary, who is herself a theological scholar at Oxford, is impressed that Margery intuitively grasped what has been the focus of her work for some years. But as much as she admires this woman and the work her church is doing (which includes creating women’s refuges, working with prostitutes, and generally making sure that pre-WWI feminism doesn’t lose its momentum now that some women have got the vote), she’s also slightly suspicious of her. And her suspicious deepen when she realises that several wealthy women in Margery’s inner circle have died in unusual circumstances.

The title A Monstrous Regiment of Women is of course a reference to John Knox’s 1558 misogynist diatribe, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. This, along with the quotes that precede each of the novel’s chapters, help set its tone perfectly. More than the mystery itself (though to be honest, the two are hard to separate), what interested me here was the insightful analysis of a particular moment in history – the “what now?” that followed the accomplishment of the suffragists’ goals, and the several different ways people reacted to that accomplishment. Interestingly enough, it’s a situation not unlike the one we face today, with plenty of men and women convinced that any further work towards gender equality is absolutely superfluous at this point.

When I expressed my disappointment in the Maisie Dobbs series a while ago, Teresa told me I should just read the second Mary Russell book instead, and she was absolutely right. The two books tackle some of the same terrain – the issue of the “surplus women”, the wounds left by the Great War, the trouble that returned wounded soldiers had adjusting to post-WWI society, the way the War eroded traditional gender roles and class divisions, etc. – but Laurie R. King’s style agrees with me so much more. It certainly helps that I love Mary Russell, and that she feels completely real to me in a way Maisie Dobbs never did.

Something I was very curious about (spoilers warning, I guess, though I think it’s difficult to begin the series without knowing this) was seeing how Laurie R. King would handle the change in Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ relationship. I don’t mind age differences when both people involved are adults, so that wasn’t an issue for me. But knowing Mary and Holmes eventually become a couple did seem strange at first, because in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Holmes is almost a father-figure. And though age doesn’t matter in itself, there seemed to be some potential here for a power imbalance that I’d like to see addressed and explored.

Before I go any further, I should confess that my mental point of reference here was Harriet Vane, partially because I unconsciously compare all mysteries to Dorothy L. Sayers’; partially because the fact that those books tackle the intrusion of power dynamics and gender politics into intimate relationships with such precision and insight is the very reason why I adore them so. To be in a relationship with someone, you need to be able to feel comfortable with being vulnerable and fully unguarded around them. But in certain social circumstances – and in the 1920’s and 1930’s, this was surely common for educated, independent women – you can’t help but wonder if your vulnerability betrays everything you stand for ideologically. It doesn’t have to, I don’t think, but this was a serious conflict, and I appreciate books that take it seriously.

Mary doesn’t struggle with this as much as Harriet Vane did. I could dismiss this as the intrusion of a modern sensibility into the story; a sensibility which is the result of a world in which this is no longer as big an issue. But I think Laurie R. King is far too good a writer, and far too careful in her research, for that to be the reason. And as I said above, she does explore the power dynamics between Mary Russell and Holmes. It could simply be that Mary’s life has been very different; that she doesn’t have Harriet’s history of having been put in a position of powerlessness; that she has the absolute confidence of the young. In any case, while she doesn’t take kindly to being protected, she doesn’t seem to think it possible that she would ever be cornered into accepting anything other than a full partnership. I do like her confidence, and I hope that as the series progresses, she will continue to face the odd looks the world will inevitable give her and Holmes with her strong will and biting irony.

A few words on the theological aspect of the novel: the work Mary does at Oxford involves analysing translations of the Bible and studying the way feminine imagery and references to God in the feminine have been erased over time. I don’t know much at all about theology, but I thought this was extremely interesting. Also, the fact that King herself has an MA in Old Testament Theology gives me faith in its accuracy. I also appreciated that both Mary’s scholarly work and Margery’s sermons were presented in a very non-sensationalist, non-Da Vinci Code sort of way.

Interesting bits:
Holmes took out an electric torch and a key and inserted the latter into a tiny fissure in the wood. With a low click, one section of the wall lost its solidity. He set his shoulder against it, we slipped into the resultant dark space, and he pushed the door to and bolted it. With his torch, he indicated the way, undid and locked another door, led me up numerous stairs, then through a shadowy office and into a mahogany wardrobe hung with musty overcoats. We unfolded from the back of it into a space that smelt of coffee and tobacco and coal fire and the ineffable essence of books.
(“The ineffable essence of books:” I just love this description so much.)
“May I tell you a story, Inspector? It is not a long story, nor a pleasant one, and the amount of guesswork that has gone into it would horrify Holmes, but elements of it I know to be the truth.” He eased back into his chair with an “at last!” expression on his face.
“It begins with the war and the perfectly appalling number of young men who were killed and crippled during those four years. At the beginning of the War, there were around six million men in this country of a marrying age, between twenty and forty. By the end of 1918, nearly a million of them lay dead. Another two million were wounded, half of them so badly damaged they may never recover. Where does this leave some two to three million healthy young women who would ordinarily have married healthy young men and spent the rest of their lives caring for babies and husbands? The papers refer to them—us!—as ‘surplus women’, as if our poor planning left us here while the men were removed. The women who ran this country, and ran it well, from 1915 to1919, have now been pushed from their jobs to make way for the returning soldiers. Strong, capable women are now made to feel redundant in both the workplace and the home, and no, Inspector, this is not just suffragette ranting; this is the basis of our case…”
Reviewed at:
Susan Hated Literature
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
A Work in Progress
Books and Movies

(As always, let me know if I’ve missed yours.)


  1. I just bought this one, after loving book 1. Looking forward!

  2. I need to read this series! It sounds great.

  3. I am ashamed and embarassed to say that I have read nothing to do with Holmes, but through all of my blogger friends, I feel I have. I need to dedicate a year to it I think. Now I am wondering if you saw the Sherlock Holmes movie. I thought it was awfully lame, but I'm not the die hard fan.

  4. I've been meaning/intending to read both the Maisie Dobbs and Mary Russell series for far too long. I adored King's Kate Martinelli series, and I think I'm going to start the Mary Russell series this summer sometime. The other female historical mystery series I'm enjoying right now is the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd. The first title is A Duty to the Dead, and the second in the series comes out this fall.

  5. Wow, I am thoroughly fascinated with the biblical study this woman does, examining how references to the feminine have been erased from scriptures. I'd love to know more about that. This sounds like a terrific series!

  6. I've never read this series, although it sounds interesting. I had no idea that "monstrous regiment" came from a misogynist diatribe, although it now explains why I see the phrase every once in a while.

  7. This sounds fascinating. I really do want to start this series.

  8. I do not think you'll be disappointed in the partnership of Russell and Holmes in subsequent books. If anything, it gets better and better. My only quibble is that Holmes never ages physically--there's little or no realism in the way he and Russell go on through the years that have elapsed since they met and married.

  9. I have been reading some great reviews of this series and already have the first book on my shelf. Reading this review of the second makes me eager to get into the series, especially since I also had some problems with Maise Dobbs.

  10. Oh, I love the sound of this! I want to read it, but I'm thinking that I should maybe start at book one. Lovely review!

  11. I have never heard of the series but this book sounds wonderful. Yet another book on the pile...

  12. So glad you enjoyed this one! I admit that I skimmed your review because I have borrowed this from the library and don't want to be spoiled in any capacity!

    I completely agree with you that Mary is a much more compelling and interesting character than Maisie Dobbs. I have read four books in the MD series, but I've found her increasingly annoying, so I likely won't read any more. So glad to have found Mary Russell!

  13. I have to read books in order - which is an annoyance but a necessary one - so I'll have to start reading the original Holmes to get to this one as it sounds fascinating. I have The Complete Holmes waiting on my shelf though, so it's ready to go.

  14. Oh dear, I didn't read the post. You see, just the other day I bought this book (the mass market paperback one so my copy has a different cover) and is part of my bedside uh, pool. I want to go into it without any knowledge whatsoever of the story but I'm pretty sure you wrote a splendid review of whatever it is you felt as you read the entire thing :)

  15. This is my favourite book of the series, so far, I still haven't read Locked Rooms & God of the Hive, and want to reread The Language of Bees, because I read it out of order.

    I just love the way the political/historical of the "surplus women" are part of the story, not shoe-horned in because they are interesting, but actually properly part of the story. *That* is writing! :)

  16. Oh!I didn't realise that Russell and Holmes become a couple. That was a bit of a shocker! In the first book Sherlock was definitely more of a father figure, so it will be interesting to see the change.

  17. This was actually the first Holmes / Russell book I read, and I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure if her discussion of removal of feminine imagery is rooted in any actual scholarship, but in any case, I was a bit frustrated that Russell (and King) ignored the presence of feminine imagery related to God present in the current, canonical Bible, such as Matt. 23:37.

  18. Lenore: I hope you enjoy it!

    Amy: Yes you do! You'll love all the gender issues it deals with.

    Sandy: There's nothing to be ashamed of! I haven't seem the movie, and to be honest I don't know much about Conan Doyle's Holmes myself. I've read 3 of the novels, but none of the short stories yet!

    Nomadreader: Sounds like I should look up Bess Crawford - thank you for bringing her to my attention!

    Stephanie: I'd love to read a whole book on that too!

    Clare: I first learned that when I read Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment (which also has a thing or two to say about misogyny, of course).

    Kathy: I hope you enjoy it as much as I have so far!

    Jeanne: That's a pity that the passage of time is nor portrayed realistically, but hopefully I'll be able to overlook that.

    Zibilee: I'm so looking forward to your review of Maisie Dobbs!

    Emidy: Yes, definitely read them in order.

    tea lady: I hadn't either before blogging, but the series has some very vocal advocates in the blogging world!

    Steph: I don't like reading reviews right before I start a book either, so I totally understand. I hope you enjoy book two as much as I did!

    Trisha: I honestly don't think you need to have read the originals to enjoy these, but we all have our reading quirks, so I won't argue :P

    Lightheaded: I look forward to hearing what you think of it :)

    Fence: Yes, exactly! She didn't just throw that in there; she made a crucial aspect of the story.

    Vivienne: Oh no! I'm so sorry to have spoiled that for you :( I'd always see Mary Russell referred to as Holmes' wife even before I began the series, so I thought it was common knowledge.

    Janeen: Given Laurie R. King's own academic background, I'd think it's indeed based on actual scholarship. The lack of references to the New Testament made sense to me considering that Mary Russell is Jewish and that her focus is specifically the Old Testament. But like I said, I know very little about Christian and Jewish theology, so I can't really discuss these things in depth.

  19. Oh, I must start this series. And soon!!!! I can't tell you how unbelievably fantastic you make these sound, Ana!

  20. Reading your review makes me want to go back to book one and start all over again! I'm waiting on the latest (God of the Hive) to come in the mail this week. :)

  21. Yes, yes, yes, nods of agreement all around. (Along with a burning desire to go back and revisit all the Russell books.)

    I specifically want to echo Jeanne's comment that the partnership is well handled in later books. The power dynamic is not a major feature in all of the books, but it comes up repeatedly. Personally, I've never had a problem with the age difference because these two seem to perfectly suited to each other. I think they'd be hard-pressed to find such a perfect match of their own ages.

    As for the theology, I read this before I started my own studies (which are more New Testament focused anyway), but my impression is that King's use of theological is all very responsible. New Testament research comes up in the next book, and as I recall (and it's been 10 years since I read it), the ideas presented aren't necessarily mainstream, but they aren't way off the beaten path either. It's not an exhaustive look at the huge world of feminist theology by any means, but I wouldn't expect that in a crime novel.

  22. There have been so many reviews of the series that have popped up over the last week that I've been fully persuaded to pick up my boyfriend's copy of The Beekeeper's Apprentice as quickly as possible!

  23. I finished the first in this series a while ago, and I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of this one. Thanks for reminding me to renew my search.

  24. I´ve only read the first one in the series, and although I didn´t dislike it I wasn´t very interested in reading the rest of it. But your review really makes me want to take a second look. Perhaps it would help if I just read it like a novel with an element of mystery, and not a mystery (because then I´ll expect something along the lines of Agatha Christie).

  25. Russell is so much more alive than Maisie Dobbs who has much smaller charms as a character. There is a fierceness to Russell (I can't stop referring to her by her last name as Holmes does) that is both physical and intellectual that defies assignment to gender. One reason I can never put these down once I start them.

    Teresa and I were just discussing how we both keep holding our breath when a new one arrives, nervous that King cannot maintain this excellence, that she will screw it up somehow. But the last two books have been stellar so keep reading.

  26. I'm so behind in getting into this series by Laurie King. I got the Beekeeper's Apprentice at the library but will probably have to return it unread. I need to just buy it so I can then read this one and the next one and there you have it, decision made!

  27. I want to congratulate you for a very successful book again. I have been reading your all your book for over a year now and all I can say is you are a have a true talent in writing.

  28. I've read the first three in this series and now feel the itch to read on. Her Kate Martinelli series is very good as well; at one time, I even thought I preferred it to these. I've only read one of her standalones, A Darker Place, but I enjoyed it too; I think I'd quite happily try anything she's put her hand to really. Her site tidily lists the order of the various series, if others here are keen to sample.

  29. I just finished the third book in the series a few days ago, and it tackles similar issues about how women are treated, misogyny, etc., although that doesn't play as large of a role in the novel as it does in the second.

    Holmes' and Russell's relationship is very interesting. I like them together, but it's hard to imagine them as a romantic couple, you know what I mean? But they are very much an intellectual pair. I don't think the books work as well when they're separated.

  30. I am definitely adding these to my list! This sounds right up my alley.

    Great review (although I closed my eyes for the spoiler). ;)

  31. Debi: Yes you do! And while we're at it, when are you reading Strong Poison? ;)

    Carrie K: I hope it arrives soon and that you enjoy it!

    Teresa: I'm very pleased to hear their partnership is handled well, and I so look forward to reading the rest of the series. As for her use of feminist theology, I think I know what you mean about it always being responsible. She really doesn't seem to be doing it for shock value.

    Claire: Yes, do! I think you're going to really enjoy this series.

    NotNessie: I hope you find it soon!

    Bina: I think reading them as novels with elements of mystery is probably a good idea, yes. As I was telling you in a comment the other day, those are actually the mysteries I tend to like best :P

    Frances: Yes, I absolutely agree - Mary Russell feels so much more real. I'm glad to hear the series is still going strong, and I look forward to savouring them all :)

    Kathleen: I'm glad to have helped you decide :P

    Buried in Print: Thank you for that link! I'll definitely have to look into what else she's written besides this series.

    Heidenkind: I do know exactly what you mean. Their relationship seems so much more cerebral than passionate. Which is different, but not necessarily bad.

    Pickygirl: I hope you enjoy them! And thank you :)

  32. The first and second books are my favorite of the series, though I haven't read the most recent two. I remember the whole drug/kidnapping part of Monstrous Regiment of Women as being an affecting emotional moment for Holmes and Russell.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.