Review: Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

Pirate King
by Laurie R. King
September 6, 2011
320 pgs
In 1994, Laurie King began a series of novels around a fiction upon a fiction – the relationship (and subsequent marriage) of one, Sherlock Holmes, detective, genius, pipe-smoker of 221B Baker Street, to Mary Russell, American, orphan, some decades Holmes’ junior. Eleven novels later, she’s still going at it, and Holmes and Russell are still finishing each others’ sentences. Never having read the previous novels, I can’t really speak to this one’s continuity. I understand, from other readers, that this is perhaps the best stand-alone of the series, making it a workable read for me. And from what I can tell, there’s no sense of winding down or dwindling. King without a doubt loves these characters and, as yet, has not seen them to an end.

Those more familiar with the series may have other opinions. Of course I can’t speak to that, but I’m fairly certain that they would have a better grasp of the relationship at the center of it. Being uncertain of their ages, the difference in their ages ¹, and of their relative past, I felt that the initial scene (in which we find out Russell’s immediate task) felt a little chilly. But once Holmes is reintroduced to the plot later on, things warm up a tad. He even proves to be somewhat of a romantic. But this is no tawdry romance; this is a good old fashioned detective story… with pirates! 

For the record, I like the
US cover (top, left) but I
think the UK cover
(above), which features
an edited Howard Pyle
illustration is awesomer.
As our narrator stipulates in the beginning, this story is rather unbelievable. This is not to say that the novel lacks a solid plot, with a flighty or unreliable supporting cast. It’s quite the opposite, actually. But the premise is a little, shall we say, complicated. It goes like this: Russell is compelled by Scotland Yard to go undercover as an assistant with a film production company (Fflytte Films…as in “Fflyttes of Fancy” or “Fflyttes of Folly”…), sailing soon to shoot on-location in Lisbon and Morocco. The film is supposed to be about (and please bear with me, here) a film crew trying to make a moving picture about Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, who then gets attacked by actual pirates. And, as Fflytte Films’ unlucky pattern would have it, the novel turns into a book about a film crew who set out to make a film about a film crew, trying to make a moving picture about Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, who then gets attacked by actual pirates, who then gets kidnapped by pirates. Did you follow that? It took me a while, too. But it was worth it. 

Even without the luxury of prior knowledge of the series and its various adventures, I found the story entertaining and easily accessible, partly due to my experience with actors, and also partly due to my recent reading of Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary, from which it seems parts of this story must have surely launched. I’m not certain whether or not the publication of two in the same week (or rather, Bantam’s publication of this one, and Berkley’s paperback release of the Tinniswood) was intentional or in any way planned ², but if it was, it was a pretty brilliant move. And if it wasn’t intentional, if it were, rather, just coincidence… well, I can just hear Holmes chiding me now. 

¹ For the record, in the time frame of this novel, Russell is about 24 an Holmes is about 61.
² I’ve contacted Pirate King’s publicist to inquire, but haven’t heard back yet.


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