Thursday, February 8, 2024

Laurie King: Sherlock Holmes and the Easter Eggs

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I have been a huge fan of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels since the publication of the very first in the series, THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, so I'm thrilled to be introducing the latest Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes adventure, #18,  THE LANTERN'S DANCE! 




Here, Laurie gives us a behind the scenes look at the choices she made as she was plotting--and I'd love to read every one of these potential stories.


Sherlock Holmes and the Easter Eggs*

Laurie R. King

 

I sometimes wonder if I write as an excuse for research. In part, it’s the travel—when you’re writing a book about Japan or Transylvania or the Riviera, you have to go there, right? Smell the air, taste the food? And in part, it’s being what my daughter calls a recovering academic, a person whose grad school career was diverted into a life of fiction rather than a life of theological minutiae.

But honestly, what’s not to love about diving into the historical background of your characters?

One of those characters is Sherlock Holmes, and after decades of pastiches, film versions, and fan-fiction, you’d think people had discovered or invented absolutely everything about him. And it’s true, in the course of a career battling everyone from Jack the Ripper to Nazis to Martians (yes, I’m afraid so), Holmes has gone everywhere.

Except perhaps his own past.

Yes, says the writer’s brain: let’s go there!

And let’s structure the book with glimpses of the past, so we can shape a story that’s like a zoetrope, with a series of images that comes to life as the wheel spins: The Lantern’s Dance.



But where to start? Well, one of the few things Arthur Conan Doyle tells us about his detective, in a story that introduces Sherlock Holmes’ previously unknown brother, Mycroft (“The Greek Interpreter”) is that their grandmother came from a famous family of artists. As Holmes says to Dr. Watson:

“My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

“But how do you know that it is hereditary?” [asks Watson]

“Because my brother Mycroft possesses it in a larger degree than I do.”

Naturally, if I wanted to write a story exploring the personal history of Sherlock Holmes, I needed to know something about the Vernets. And naturally, for a writer like me with a taste for academic research, the waters of the investigation pool quickly grew very deep indeed.

I shall not burden you with the… shall we say, challenge of the Vernet genealogies and family histories, no two of which agreed on dates, relationships, or even the sex of a child. Nor will I tell you my personal feelings about a family that cannot stick to an identity, but drops names, randomly switches around their first and middle names, or even adopts one that they like better. I will merely say that there’s good reason why we didn’t create a family tree for The Lantern’s Dance’s book club guide.

But—let’s start small, and first try to decide which “Vernet, the French artist” Holmes was talking about. That is a fairly simple problem, for if we work back from the birth date of the elder Holmes brother (1854, though some sources say 1847), it would suggest a grandmother’s birth date somewhere between 1785 and 1815. The Vernet artist who matches those dates as a brother would be Horace (1789-1863.)


(Horace, Self Portrait, 1835)

Therefore, if we’re interested in playing with the links between the Holmes family and the Vernets in The Lantern’s Dance, the artist we want to start with is Horace.

The problem is, even this one single Vernet carries with him such a huge wagon-load of fascinating facts and potential story lines that I could have written half a dozen books, each following a different side-track.

Such as Horace Vernet’s childhood traumas. As a three-year-old during the Revolution, little Horace was rushed through a hail of bullets in the Tuileries. Soon after, his aunt was put to the guillotine by a colleague of Horace’s artist father, Carle, by name of Jacques-Louis David. What if, all these years later, Sherlock Holmes were to uncover some secret rivalry between David and the Vernets, that…

No. Too convoluted, too thinly linked with Horace—and in any case, I don’t want to spend large portions of this book buried amidst the horrors of the French Revolution.

But what about Horace Vernet’s time in a later unrest, the 1848 revolution? His paintings were burned, he was forced to retreat to a small apartment in the Institut de France, he conveniently found a change of patrons…

No: pas de révolution!

How about some nice espionage instead? Ah yes, that’s more like it.

Without giving away plot-spoilers, Horace Vernet does indeed enter our story, during his 1839 sketching trip to Egypt and Palestine. His companions include a young man with a daguerreotype camera—only invented that year—and a nephew by the name of Charles Burton. Burton is an Army officer fluent in Arabic, 26 years old, who happens to be free to accompany his famous uncle, providing the skills both to translate and to guard this remarkable new machine capable of recording clear and detailed images of such places as Acre and Cairo. Vernet’s reputation preceeded him, clearing the way for the artist and his companions to move among the important officials and leaders of the area.



(Horace Vernet: Arabs Traveling in the Desert)

Hmm, says the writer’s brain: access plus communication skills plus a plausible reason for poking around equals a superb opportunity for sending back reports and images to the French military.

So what if….?

But along that track, too, lies a plot that is not what I need.

There is another generation of artists already in this book. I need the Vernets for their art, not their opportunities for espionage.

Reluctantly, grudgingly, I scoop up whole pages of a first draft involving 19th century spycraft (Horace even went to Russia! I could write about the Czar!) and drop them into the “Cuts” file.

Instead, the Egyptian sketching expedition takes on a different role, with Horace’s travels made to serve a rather different purpose in the plot. Don’t worry, espionage remains—I couldn’t resist that temptation—but in a far more covert manner than the original thought.

The spying, the travel, the references to specific Vernet paintings all become Easter Eggs, little spots of colorful treasure that not everyone will see, but which nestle into the story and await discovery. A game, between a writer and her readers.

But still, I am curious. If I were to go back and re-make those decisions that went into The Lantern’s Dance, if I were to pick up one of the discarded possibilities that my research teased me with, which do you think that should be? The French Revolution? Artistic spies in North Africa? Some side task required by Czar Nicholas, perhaps?

Let me know what you’d like in the comments. After all, that’s what short stories are for!

* Easter Egg: a bit of hidden treasure, or an inside joke among game-players.

 


Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of 30 novels and other works, including the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes novels. She has won the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Lambda, Wolfe, Macavity, Creasey dagger, and Romantic Times Career Achievement awards, has an honorary doctorate, and is a Baker Street Irregular and a Mystery Writers of American Grand Master. She is celebrating thirty years of Russell & Holmes with a series of all-day Beekeeper’s Apprentice events (see her events page) and her new book, out on February 13, is The Lantern’s Dance.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, hoping for a respite in the French countryside, are instead caught up in a case that turns both bewildering and intensely personal.


“Deftly interlacing present and past, King offers further fascinating insights into Holmes’s family while also delivering an intriguing mystery.”—The Washington Post

After their recent adventures in Transylvania, Russell and Holmes look forward to spending time with Holmes’ son, the famous artist Damian Adler, and his family. But when they arrive at Damian’s house, they discover that the Adlers have fled from a mysterious threat.

Holmes rushes after Damian while Russell, slowed down by a recent injury, stays behind to search the empty house. In Damian’s studio, she discovers four crates packed with memorabilia related to Holmes’ granduncle, the artist Horace Vernet. It’s an odd mix of treasures and clutter, including a tarnished silver lamp with a rotating shade: an antique yet sophisticated form of zoetrope, fitted with strips of paper whose images dance with the lantern’s spin.

In the same crate is an old journal written in a nearly impenetrable code. Intrigued, Russell sets about deciphering the intricate cryptograph, slowly realizing that each entry is built around an image—the first of which is a child, bundled into a carriage by an abductor, watching her mother recede from view.

Russell is troubled, then entranced, but each entry she decodes brings more questions. Who is the young Indian woman who created this elaborate puzzle? What does she have to do with Damian, or the Vernets—or the threat hovering over the house?

The secrets of the past appear to be reaching into the present. And it seems increasingly urgent that Russell figure out how the journal and lantern are related to Damian—and possibly to Sherlock Holmes himself.

Could there be things about his own history that even the master detective does not perceive?

DEBS: Horace was quite the dandy, wasn't he? What fun!

And we have more fun for you today--2 GIVEAWAYS!!

#1

Comment here on the BLOG to be entered to win a signed copy of THE LANTERN'S DANCE!!

#2

And comment over on our REDS & READERS Facebook group to be entered to win a copy of ECHOES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a fabulous collection of Sherlock-themed short stories edited by Laurie and Leslie Klinger. Hank, Hallie, and I all have stories in this anthology and it is such fun!! 

If you haven't joined our REDS & READERS FB group, here's the link.

You can learn more about Laurie and THE LANTERN'S DANCE here:


100 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Laurie, on your newest book . . . what an intriguing mystery . . . I'm looking forward to reading it.

    I'm astounded by all the choices, Laurie; if I were to choose just one of those possibilities, I believe I would choose the spying with its opportunity for sending back reports and daguerreotype images to the French military, simply because I think it would make a fascinating story.

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    1. I know, right? So many choices of path!

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  2. The artistic spies in North Africa sounds interesting.

    Congrats on the book. That's an incredible cover.

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  3. I am looking forward to reading The Lantern’s Dance! The Artistic Spies would be a great read, I’m sure!!! I love spy novels and I your books!!!!

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  4. Looking forward to the next installment of Mary and Sherlock's story. North Africa seems very exotic to me perhaps because I have a treasured photo of my great grandmother on a camel, visiting there in the 1930s.

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    1. What a treasure—and the descendants of that camel are probably still posing for photos today.

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  5. I agree with Mark, that the artistic spies in North Africa would be the most fascinating to me. Congratulation on your newest book! Thank you for this chance at your giveaway. pgenest57 at aol dot com

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  6. Easter eggs are so much fun in books, and I'm looking forward to finding the ones you dropped in this book. Joining the gang here on loving the artistic spy idea the best. Congratulations on keeping this long-running series going in such a delightful way.

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  7. What a fascinating story The Lantern's Dance sounds! I love it already. And congratulations on so many Mary & Sherlock books - truly a "vein of gold".

    What side research would make a good story for me? Spying during the trip to Egypt and Palestine, or even spying in Russia. I love historical stories dealing with spies.

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  8. I love Easter eggs! Count me in as another vote for artistic spying.

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  9. I've read all the Russell/Holmes books to date, Laurie, so it will be with great pleasure that I'll read this one--and look for hidden references to Vernet. If you write a Vernet short story, please write about 1848-49. I knew that Europe was in an uproar then, but until I checked online just now, I didn't realize that over 50 countries were affected by revolutionary activity--including Switzerland! There was a short-lived Swiss civil war in 1847 when seven very conservative Catholic cantons tried to secede and were defeated with the loss of only 100 lives. With its liberal constitution of 1848, Switzerland was re-born as a federal state, and patrician rule was over.

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    1. The 1840s were indeed a time when the world was flipped on its head. Reassuring, for us to know that the world survived…?

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    2. So interesting, Kim. Wonder if you could work it in as backstory somehow in one of your books...

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  10. You were spoiled for choice, Laurie! In your skilled hands any one of those plots could have been dazzling. Thanks for the peek behind your process.

    Horace certainly had dainty little feet, didn't he? And I'm intrigued by the desert painting. Is it possible the guide has camel-like toes built into his footwear? Possibly for traction in the sand?

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    1. The feet are odd, aren’t they, in both paintings? I don’t remember noticing that in his other paintings. As for the guide, I’d like to see the original, might be clearer.

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  11. Congratulations on your new release! I vote for northern Africa, perhaps the 220 pyramids in Sudan or St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai as settings.

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    1. Oh, St Catherine’s would be fun!

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  12. So intriguing! I can't wait to read it and look for the Easter eggs. I've been a fan of yours since I stayed up way too late devouring A Grave Talent many years ago. Since I recently listened to some BBC In Our Times podcasts about the French Revolution, I would choose that thread, despite its horrors.

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    1. Not sure I could bear the research for the French Revolution…
      Laurie King

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  13. I’m interested in the spy angle. Can’t wait to read The Lantern’s Dance!~Emily Dame

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  14. Congratulations, Laurie. I love all the ideas, but a side-job for Czar Nicholas wins my vote.

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  15. Oh Laurie, any one of these would be a treasure to read. Congratulations on choosing a final path and getting the story written.

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    1. Thanks, and I hope you like the book!
      Laurie

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  16. I am torn between side job for the czar and the artistic spy - both so exotic!

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  17. Laurie, I love love love the title! So evocative! And as the lantern spins, the story unfolds, faster and faster! I'm going to vote for Egyptian sketching and North Africa, simply because, well, slide some archaeological intrigue in there while you're at it :-) (Flora)

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    1. It was fun working the zoetrope into the plot.
      Laurie

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  18. I’m excited to read about West African artists.

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    1. Well, French artists in West Africa…
      Laurie

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  19. Congrats! Sounds like a great read.

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  20. Laurie - I *love* this series so much. Still remembering when I read the first one. And thanks for a somewhat terrifying walk through your plotting-brain. It's like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy reaches a crossroads with confusing signs in every direction, and then the lion jumps out of the thicket. You have to write the story that speaks to your heart and all those wrong turns are the only way of getting there. Sometimes my (I call it) OUT file is longer than my manuscript,

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    1. Oh, Hallie, thank you for the kind words. And for the image of Dorothy and the confusing signs, that is so what it feels like sometimes.
      Laurie

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  21. Laurie, congratulations! My family are fans of your Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes mystery series.

    Wondered if Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator, had ancestors who were country squires? artists?

    Still remember that scene in the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch where he was at a Club where everyone had to be silent and communicated in Sign Language. I could see Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes conversing in Sign Language.

    Look forward to reading Lantern's Dance and the Echoes of Sherlock.

    Diana

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    1. Doyle definitely had artists in his family, yes. And couldn’t you just picture Russell and Holmes having an argument in sign language?
      Laurie

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  22. This is fascinating! And I'd love to see what the Russel/Holmes clan would do in Russia, but I wouldn't want to send you there now to do the research.

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  23. The scope of the beauty of so many aspects whirling into a comprehensive picture . . . a good reason to reread and further appreciate the artistry. I've read and reviewed (awaiting Am.) and loved it! (sleep? gladly sacrificed!) I was introduced to this series by a storytelling friend who was also an FBI agent and who did not steer me wrong. <3

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    1. Tell your friend thanks from me!
      Laurie

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  24. Laurie, I'm fascinated by the Vernets angle. In my years at The Art Institute of Chicago, I loved visiting Claude-Joseph's "Morning," which appears to have been part of a set of paintings about times of day. I loved it even better once I discovered Sir Arthur's drawings in "Dangerous Work," the 2012 publication of his log from his whaling days. The ropes and other details of the ships are curiously similar to the details of the ships in "Morning."
    I have errands to take care of today, and I'll be taking a Russell book along to keep me company on the bus trips... probably "Castle Shade," to remind me where Russell left off.

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    1. The Vernets are indeed gems.
      Laurie

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  25. I'm really looking forward both to reading this and to the 30th Anniversary Beekeeper's Apprentice Day in Nashville in August.

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    1. Ooh, yes, all four Beekeeper events are going to be SUCH fun!
      Laurie King

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  26. Cierra Sather-JenningsFebruary 8, 2024 at 10:26 AM

    I love reading about the process you use when writing, and now I’m curious about how you could weave Russell and Holmes into a story with the Czar! I can’t wait for Pub Day!!

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  27. Congratulations Laurie! What an intriguing and unforgettable mystery. The North Africa aspect and the artists appeal to me greatly. This series is wonderful.

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  28. Congratulations!!! many sales and a kaleidoscope of plots to emerge. Voting with the majority, artistic spies.

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    1. Seems that I'm writing a short story about artist spies...
      Laurie

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  29. Another vote for artistic spies
    Wskwared(at)yahoo(dot)com

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  30. Sometimes having too many choices can be paralyzing. You've come up with a basketful, any one of which would be worthwhile. I'm intrigued by your selection. Makes me eager to read The Lantern's Dance!

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  31. I can't wait to read it!

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  32. Can't wait to get my hands on this one. What fun! (I've been enjoying this series since tyhe very first) And I am so intrigued by the idea of a side job for the Czar. (That almost sounds like a title, doesn't it?)

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  33. Another Russell book! I enjoyed reading about your research as well your thought processes. Mysandycat@aol.com

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    1. Though sometimes I feel that "thought process" should be in quotes.
      Laurie

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  34. My copy of The Lantern’s Dance is pre-ordered, so I’m eagerly awaiting publication day. But to answer your question: hard to resist a Czar as a character!

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    1. That family is intriguing, yes.
      Laurie

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  35. Oh, I think artistic spies in North Africa sounds the most interesting out of those choices. Looking forward to reading this one next week!

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  36. So looking forward to another adventure ... love your daughter's characterization of you as a "recovering academic"

    Everywhere Mary et al travel you've introduced me to new places - my fave of your recent books has been Bran Castle & the 20th century story of Marie of Romania

    You trigger a lot of looksups on Wikipedia, Google Maps & Street View - only possible because you clearly did so much research via deeper, more direct sources, so thank you so very much for the years you've not only been a story teller but also a travel guide & docent

    I'm so sad I missed your talk at Filoli - it's such a lovely site & I always enjoy when your books are in my hometown & the greater SF Bay Area

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    1. The Russell map of the world! And yes, Filoli was fun.
      Laurie

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  37. Putting in my two cents for North Africa and the artistic spies! That would be fascinating.
    And I loved the peek at your plotting process, Laurie.

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    1. Well, Deb, if you're voting for it that settles it.
      Laurie

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  38. I love that delicate dance Holmes does with regards to Damien and his family.

    I vote for artists in North Africa. Such daring back in those days!

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  39. Czar Nicholas or North Africa or why not both? Loved this glimpse into your process, Laurie! You are as fascinating as Holmes (that's a compliment)!

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    1. Though I hope I make a better dinner companion than he would...
      Laurie

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    2. I can testify that you make a wonderful dinner companion, Laurie!:-)

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  40. Sounds like a great book. Looking forward to reading it. Adding to my TBR list.

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    1. A list is better than a teetering pile, I guess!
      Laurie

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  41. Artistic spies in North Africa would be my go to choice, but Czar Nicholas’s side quest would also be interesting.

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  42. The Lantern Dance sounds intriguing! I just researched "Easter egg" a bit more and found that the term was coined around 1979 by Steve Wright, the software development director for Atari. The term was meant to describe a hidden message in the Atari video game Adventure, in reference to an Easter egg hunt. I won't quote the entire Wikipedia description, but I do find this research exciting and I am not even a writer of novels as Laurie King is! I'd love to see one of her future escapades involve Morocco for the culture, food and art! In reading a bit about the history of films shot there, I was surprised to learn that it happened in 1897! The country was considered to be at the doorstep to Europe. Can you envision a trip there to the medinas and marketplaces! Have I captured your interest, yet?

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    1. Alicia, don't miss Holmes and Russell in Morocco in "Garment of Shadows." The beginning, when Russell is on her own, is especially vivid and beautifully done (although I got quite worried for Russell the first several times I read it).

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    2. Absolutely--as Margaret says, Garment of Shadows plunks Russell down into all kinds of trouble in Morocco.
      Laurie

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  43. I can not wait to get this book!!! I so enjoy when there are historical figures mentioned in the accounts. I especially love learning about new ones. I will say the descriptions of place with smells, sounds and sights is always transporting. I will take any further adventure that Ms. King will share with us

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    1. Thank you, Lorene--hope you like this one!
      Laurie

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  44. Every time you mention North Africa, I immediately think Mahmoud and Ali, perhaps in this case working on an historical cold case affecting their own time? Or is that too obvious a ploy to encounter them again?

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    1. One never knows with those two rogues...
      Laurie

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  45. I am SO excited about this book. One of my favorite series. I've cleared the decks for Tuesday. Congratulations!

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  46. I've read the entire Russell/Holmes series numerous times. Each time I find something new. Maybe not Easter eggs, but still fascinating. I cannot wait for The Lantern's Dance! I've really enjoyed previous books where the timelines go back and forth. For a future book or novella, I was going to say Czar Nicholas, but...the research. However, you've teased before that Russell and Holmes took a side trip to Turkey after leaving Morocco. Would love to find out what they did there (because you know it wasn't just sightseeing!). ~Cathy

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    1. OK, not quite northern Africa, but a girl's gotta try!

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  47. I'll add my two cents worth....North Africa. I'm really looking forward to my next "visit" with Russell/Holmes. Congratulations Laurie on another book in what is an absolutely wonderful series.

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  48. I am always looking for new authors to read. This book sounds like the kind I enjoy reading.

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