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Laurie R. King
Pirate King
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Bantam / Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-553-80798-1
Publication Date: 09-09-2011
298 pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 09-04-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Literary sophistication is rarely seen as a quick route to hilarity; and likewise, farce is not often regarded as a means for exploring the ways in which layers of representation signify and dignify the task of the artist. Fortunately, in the course of writing ten novels based on the absurd proposition that Sherlock Holmes was real and eventually fell in with Mary Russell, a woman smart and tough enough to keep up with him, Laurie R. King managed to forget these guidelines. With 'Pirate King,' the eleventh Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes adventure, she demonstrates that smart and funny can walk hand in hand with dark and dangerous. Shockingly, all four emerge unscathed in this novel that shows off a deft sense of humor and an engaging plot. 'Pirate King' proves that writing itself can be a swashbuckling business.

King doesn't mince words. Before the novel even begins, Mary Russell herself assures us that this book chronicles events so, "shall we say, colorful," that we have her "full permission to regard it (and alas, by contagion, me) as fiction." Well then! Let the fiction begin.

In her desperation to avoid being in the general vicinity of Mycroft, Russell takes on an assignment from Lestrade, who asks her to investigate some nefarious goings-on associated with a movie company. They're about to start a new project, and the "assistant's assistant" has vanished, leaving an opening for Mary. The next movie will be a film about a group of filmmakers trying to film a movie version of the The Pirates of Penzance. Everyone's eccentric. The director takes them to Lisbon, to hire some local talent, men who will really look the parts they're going to play. This proves to be an unwise choice. Fortunately for readers, at least, Mary Russell is on board.

'Pirate King' hits just about every note in the scale from farce to fear, and does so with what seems to be no effort. When she wants to be funny, which is often in this book, King will make you laugh out loud. But she knows that the key to making those laughs count is to create real characters and put them in real danger, which she evokes with equal ease. The plot here is much more linear than the usual outing for these characters, but King is skilled enough to keep danger alive as well as much of her cast.

The characters provide a large part of the entertainment value in 'Pirate King,' particularly Fernando Pessoa, a figure drawn from history who is entirely in keeping with Mary Russell's assertion that one might well be inclined to regard him as fiction. He's not, and King makes excellent use of a man who was clearly an artist ahead of his time. Complicating matters enjoyably and greatly are thirteen blonde actresses and an equivalent number of more-than-pretend pirates. King's layering of a famous play within a movie within a movie within a "memoir" within a novel offers her the opportunity to play with her readers' perceptions at every turn. There's always another mask to remove, which perfectly suits the sensibilities of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

In 'Pirate King,' Laurie R. King lets loose her smart comedic sensibility across a variety of genre tropes. Pirate stories, show stories, movie-making stories, mystery, adventure, travel, romance — the genres and jokes whip by so quickly that King seems to be one of those impossible jugglers on a trapeze wire, whirling plates and spinning cups over an abyss of storytelling panache. King writes well enough to make this all seamless and easy-to-read.

What 'Pirate King' most ably demonstrates, however, is that Laurie King has been carving out her own niche as she creates her own genre. Start out in the world of meta-fiction, then turn the page; you're at sea, you're in the desert, you're with a gaggle of giggling teenage girls or a brace of brutal pirates. King sets sail aboard a powerful story sporting a smile and sword, takes no prisoners and leaves no reader behind.

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