April 12, 2004

A Grave Talent
To Play the Fool
With Child
Night Work

by Laurie R. King

Aside from her amusing series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, I had not previously read any other books by Laurie King. She has this series about Kate Martinelli, two linked novels and a complete stand-alone as well. I like the Mary Russell series very much and decided to give Kate Martinelli a shot to see if King's story telling is as good in a modern series as it is in early 20 century England.

The main character is Kate Martinelli, a young detective newly transferred to San Francisco from San Jose with a good reputation and little experience. On her first assignment she is assigned to work on a child kidnapping/murder case with Inspector Al Hawkin, a seasoned veteran who slightly resents being saddled with a primadonna just to keep the media happy. Women look good on cases with kids, more compassionate and all.

A Grave Talent is the story of that case. All the little girls are about the same age, look very similar and, unmolested, are dumped after death on a specific road in hills, coincidentally in the middle of a closed community of old hippies and hermit types. The access in and out of the community is locked. Cars are only allowed on specific days, phone lines are limited and everyone knows everyone. Plus the terrain makes transporting a dead child cross country from elsewhere next to impossible. And then they discover that one of the community's residents has spent time in jail for killing a child she was babysitting. A child who looks very much like the murder victims. And she is also a world famous artist whose paintings are faintly disturbing in light of recent events.

The first book is as much about discovering who Kate is and the development of her partnership with Hawkin as it is about the murder. There is much to learn about Kate. She's had some hard knocks up til this point and has learned to keep her private life separate from her work life, to the point of using the nickname Casey at work and Kate with her friends. Watching her relationship with Hawkin grow is interesting also. He has a disturbing tendency to call at all hours and not sleep til a case is solved. He also doesn't pry.

The next three books continue with Martinelli and Hawkin working together. To Play the Fool has them investigating the lives of the homeless after a man has been murdered and then partially cremated in a park. This book's prime suspect is Brother Erasmus, a man who speaks only in quotations and ministers to the homeless and the poor. Conversations with him are interesting, to say the least, especially if you aren't extremely well versed in the Bible and Shakespeare. King is exploring the role of the Fool and how human interactions depend on language in this story. It was interesting.

With Child is about a bad patch in Martinelli's home life. She has taken a leave of absence for medical reasons. Hawkin is getting married so Martinelli offers to care for his new stepdaughter during his honeymoon. The child is way too bright for her own good and when she disappears from their motel room in the same vicinity as a serial murderer, things get even worse.

Night Work was the least straightforward and most problematic of the four. Kate continues to have domestic issues and at the same time is investigating murders of men who have abused or beaten their wives in some way. They all have the same markers, especially the candy left in their pockets. Plus a good friend of Kate's is a suspect or at least complicit in the crime somehow. This one wasn't as tightly plotted as the previous three, however, and I kept wondering how she was going to tie all the loose ends together at the end. She manages it, but just barely. And there were some plot points that were just a little too over the top to be believable.

These books aren't the amusing mysteries that Kings other series is but the character of Kate is compelling. And King uses the books to explore themes that are fascinating. Her background in Old Testament theology and religion keeps showing up deepening the novels and toning down much of the feminist angst that other women authors play up. I liked that about them. Good stories, well told.

Posted by Deb English at April 12, 2004 07:44 PM