Sunday , February 25 2024
Picador has reissued the first three Kate Martinelli mysteries. It's well worth picking them up.

Books Review: ‘A Grave Talent,’ ‘To Play the Fool’ and ‘With Child’ by Laurie King

Marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie King’s initial entry in her critically acclaimed Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, Picador is reissuing the first three novels in her Kate Martinelli series.

San Francisco detective Martinelli, K.C. to her colleagues, Kate to her friends, debuted in 1993 in A Grave Talent. Having been recently promoted from the San Jose police department, perhaps as a negative reaction to her independence, perhaps as a move towards affirmative action, she is determined to prove herself. She is assigned to work with veteran detective, Al Hawkin — a transplant from Los Angeles, and a man with definite ideas about how he wants things done. Neither quite sure of what to expect from each other they are thrown immediately into a high-profile murder case.

The bodies of three young children are found in a small community on private property in the wooded hills outside the city. It doesn’t take long before it is discovered that one of the locals is a woman who had been convicted and imprisoned for the vicious murder of a six-year-old girl 18 years earlier, and to complicate matters even further, the woman, Vaun Adams, has become, since her release, a well-respected artist under a pseudonym. While it seems unlikely that were she the killer of the new victims, she would be stupid enough to dispose of the bodies in her own backyard, she still must be considered a suspect. That is until, she herself, becomes a victim.

Grave talentIn Martinelli, Laurie King has drawn a character who is as interesting as a complex human being as she is as a police officer. She understands what others expect from her; she understands what she expects from herself. She is careful to determine which expectations are legitimate. In a sense, her choice to be K.C. on the job and Kate at home, is less a sign of a split personality, than it is her assertion of her independence, her need for privacy. And if as her friend and housemate Lee tells her late in the novel, she hides in her closed “armadillo routine,” it is her way of taking control.

The novel is filled with psychological insights not only into Kate, but into Vaun and even, perhaps, King. Her portrait of the artist as a young woman and 18 years later is especially interesting, raising all kinds of questions about the nature of artistic genius and its effects on the artist and those around her. Indeed the discussions of art and art criticism (especially as it is related to the recognition of woman) adds another explicit level to the novel’s implicit feminist critique of the emergence of women on the police force. The book is, in some sense, a decidedly genteel feminist work.

That A Grave Talent went on to win an Edgar Award is no accident; it is a book with enough action and surprises to keep readers entranced, it’s filled with interesting well drawn characters, and its prose is compelling. That Martinelli and crew are back two years later in To Play the Fool is no surprise.

(Readers who haven’t read A Grave Talent and who intend to should be forewarned that at least one spoiler lurks ahead).

Led by a charismatic homeless holy man, Brother Erasmus, a group of the homeless have cremated a play the fooldead pet dog in Golden Gate Park, and when a few weeks later the group tries to perform the same rite on the pet dog’s deceased master on their own, they are stopped by the authorities. Martinelli and Hawkin get involved when it is discovered that the unidentified deceased did not die of natural causes. Getting information from the homeless is a bad dream, but getting information from Brother Erasmus, who seems to be a leader of sorts amongst the park dwellers, is a nightmare.

Brother Erasmus is a unique figure. It is he who is the Fool of the title. Fool, here, is to be taken in a mystical sense, with all the Biblical associations of saintliness and Shakespearian connotations of wisdom. As Martinelli quickly discovers, he is not your ordinary troubled street person. He has friends and supporters in the Berkeley theological community. He has upstanding citizens who look out for him in the tourist areas where he competes with buskers for attention, plying his trade as Fool. The homeless look to him as a kind of spiritual leader. But for all his charisma, it is nearly impossible for Martinelli to communicate with him, because he only speaks using quotations.

The attempt to find the killer of a man they can’t even identify seemingly hopeless, Martinelli focuses her attention on Brother Erasmus who she feels can provide a key to the enigma. Indeed, soon the murder really takes a back seat to an investigation of the idea of the Fool in general and its specific embodiment in the guise of Brother Erasmus. Almost the only question unasked is why he chose the name, a question that never seems to occur to anyone. The murder, of course is solved, but it is more or less an afterthought.

King has broadened her canvas. In A Grave Talent art plays an important role, but the crime and its effects is still the major focus. By the second book, not only is she dealing with the concept of the fool, but Martinelli, who took care to keep her sexuality private for more than half of the first tome, has become the media’s poster girl as the lesbian cop. Kate and Lee are quite open about their relationship, and now the main concern is with Lee’s rehabilitation after her shooting. Kate may not like the publicity, but she is no longer keeping her life style under wraps.

wih childThese broader concerns are carried through to the third book in the series, With Child. Although the kidnapping of the newly married Al Hawkin’s step-daughter, Jules, while on a trip with Kate, is its central concern, it takes a good half of the book for that to happen. Early on King is more interested in problems that have arisen in Kate and Lee’s relationship. Lee, still not quite recovered, has gone off to try to regain her independence, and Kate is on her own and floundering. It is Kate’s emotional turmoil that drives the novel.

Jules, the young girl genius, who was introduced toward the end of the first book, enlists Kate to find a young homeless boy she has befriended. They become close, as Jules begins to fill up the empty space in Kate’s life. When Jules asks to stay with Kate while Al and her mother go on their honeymoon, the two embark on a trip up North, and Jules disappears from a motel where they have stopped for the night. And while the search for the young girl and its results are much more the stuff of the traditional thriller then the treatment of the murder in To Play the Fool, the exploration of personal relationships is still a major concern.

This is the great gift of these three novels. Kate Martinelli is no stereotype surrounded by stereotypes. Laurie King creates three dimensional characters — Vaun Adams, Brother Erasmus, Jules Cameron, and a whole cast of others – -who are dynamic and idiosyncratic enough to hold attention in their own right, and Kate Martinelli may well be the most dynamic of the bunch. They, the characters, are the meat and potatoes of King’s novels; the crimes and their solutions are the dessert.

About Jack Goodstein

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