I first discovered Laurie R. King when I was editor of Lambda Book Report.
We’d received a review copy of her latest Kate Martinelli series, Nightwork, and the then-editor generally assigned mysteries/crime novels to me to review, since I had written one (that hadn’t been released yet) so ergo, I was an expert. Obviously, there were too many of them released each month for me to review, and so some got farmed out, but I held on to this one because I was very conscious that my reading was very gay male-heavy and I had a responsibility, not just to readers but to the community as a whole, to read works by women. The theory was at the time that gay men only read gay men and only lesbians read lesbians; I could hardly criticize this exercise in literary misogyny if I were doing the same thing. I read the book, loved it, wrote a glowing review, and then traipsed over to Lambda Rising on Connecticut Avenue (or was it Massachusetts? My memory is for shit) and bought the first books in the series. I devoured them, loved them, and recommended them to anyone who would listen.
You can imagine my shock, surprise, and delight to discover that King was not, in fact, a lesbian.
The Martinelli series ended shortly thereafter, and King moved on to her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, which I got a mistaken idea about and thus never read. I’ve never been much of a Sherlockian, primarily because Dr. Watson got on my nerves (I felt much the same about Agatha Christie’s version, Colonel Hastings) and I assumed that “Mary Russell” was the “Mary” whom eventually became Mrs. Watson. Ugh, no thanks, I thought, ignoring the series to my own detriment for years (I eventually discovered that I was not only mistaken about whom Mary Russell was, but that the series itself is an absolute delight and has become one of my favorites).
I also had the pleasure and delight of working with Laurie a lot over the past few years, and as we spoke and became more and more friendly she told me about this book she was currently working on, and I couldn’t wait for its release.
And the day finally came.
The man in the dripping Army poncho paused to shove back his hood and stand, head cocked, trying to make out the half-heard sound. A minute later, a car came into view, half a mile or so down the hill–a big white Pontiac, struggling to keep on the road. The man leaned on his shovel, judging the contest between the treacherous surface–the way up to the commune was unpaved, rutted, steep, and slick with the endless rain–and the determined car, which obviously had good tires.
The car slithered and flirted with disaster, but managed to avoid going off the cliff or getting bogged down in the section where the culvert had washed out last month. When it came to the end of the clear section and vanished behind the trees, the man bent over to shake the rain from his long hair and beard, like a dog coming out of a river, then slopped the last shovelfuls of mud from the blocked ditch before walking down to see what the invader wanted.
The mud-spattered Pontiac eased into the farmyard, hesitating over the choice of targets: ancient woodshed or shiny new greenhouse? Psychedelic school bus up on blocks or geodesic dome layered in tarpaulins? In the end , the driver chose the aging farmhouse in the middle, pulling up close to the steps. The engine shut off, the music died–had to be a tape player; a radio would get nothing but static this far out. The person inside leaned over to roll up the passenger-side window, then sat, staring through the smeared windshield at the house as if expecting someone to come out.
The man in the poncho stayed where he was.
Back to the Garden couldn’t be more different than the Mary Russell series (or the Kate Martinelli for that matter) than if a different writer had written them. The primary character of the book, suspended police detective Raquel Laing, is working a cold case assigned to her by her retired mentor, as DNA has unmasked the identity of a serial killer who operated along the California highway system in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and became known as the Highwayman. His victims were found missing a shoe and usually buried in concrete. The Highwayman knows who all of his victims are and where he buried them; now that he is dying and incarcerated, he is playing a game with the police: find one of my girls, and I’ll tell you where you’ll find another.
It’s sick, it’s twisted, and it’s extremely brilliant, particularly as they are now racing the clock to get the answers before he dies.
Yet there’s another wrinkle in the story: at the Gardener Estate (think San Simeon) the moving of an enormous statue by a famous artist has uncovered skeletal remains buried in concrete. Is this another of the Highwayman’s victims? Laing has to go to the Estate and dig through its bizarre and curious history to try to link the Highwayman to the commune that occupied the palatial estate in the second half of the 1970’s, which enables King to balance two separate time-lines (one telling the story of the commune and how it came to be on the estate before the sect disintegrates, which also provides the reader with plenty of potential victims and killers; the other the present day as Laing tries to piece together what happened on the Gardener Estate back in the day) and build up suspense in multiple directions and involving multiple stories.
I was around in the 1970’s, of course; I turned eighteen in 1979 and while the time of the flower children and the height of the commune movement had already passed by the time I was old enough to partake (if I so chose), I do remember those times. I remember as a child thinking the youth movement had the right idea about a lot of things–the rot and unfairness inherent to capitalism; conservation and preserving the earth and its resources; moving away from the monetary trade concept and ownership–all of these things sound marvelous and utopian; they still do, but now with the advantage of age and the cynicism that comes with, they seem very naïve and not very aware of how human nature and the world actually work; their innocence is almost endearing as they try to recreate Eden…
..but there’s always a snake in the garden.
The book is vivid and real; the characters three-dimensional; the story compelling; and of course, the writing is stellar. This book puts yet another jewel in the Grand Master crown King so deservedly wears already.
And I do hope for more novels centering Inspector Laing.