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BOOK REVIEW

With `The Game,' Holmes-inspired series loses its mystery

The Game

By Laurie R. King

Bantam, 369 pp., $23.95

The trouble with literary pastiches is that at some point you run out of original material to riff on. All the years of the life of the famous character you've adopted have been accounted for, all that characters' quirks and foibles played out to exhaustion. For author Laurie R. King, who revived Sherlock Holmes and gave him a female counterpart for one of her two mystery series, "The Game" reveals that this time has come.

King's Holmes-inspired books, featuring the younger, feisty Jewish-American Mary Russell, have had a good run. The seven-book series began with great flair in "The Beekeeper's Apprentice," and the tension (and inevitable romance) between an aging Victorian Holmes and a strong-minded 20th-century woman kept the series strong through several volumes. Even when the two protagonists resolved their differences, old cases came back to invigorate the series ("The Moor," for example, revisited "The Hound of the Baskervilles" territory). But as "The Game" opens in January 1924, the couple have grown too comfortable in each other's presence to generate many sparks, and the only Holmesian history King has left to mine are the "missing years," when Holmes was presumed dead, supposedly killed by his archenemy Moriarty (and by his original author, Arthur Conan Doyle) at the Reichenbach Falls 30 years earlier.

In lieu of a Doyle-inspired plot, King turns to Rudyard Kipling, particularly to "Kim." The young Anglo-Indian of Kipling's adventure was, it seems, befriended by Holmes during those lost years and has since gone missing himself. Since those early days, Kim has continued in the British service, acting as a spy in the intelligence-gathering competition known as "the Great Game." Because of the grown-up Kim's profession and his sympathies with his adopted homeland, however, his disappearance is considered highly suspicious. With geopolitics heating up between an expanding and newly communist Russia and an increasingly independence-minded India, Holmes and Russell (as his wife prefers to be called) are sent back by

Holmes's brother to find Holmes's old running buddy and to stop the subcontinent from exploding, if that is indeed possible. As Holmes notes, in an observation that transcends his era: "We in the West have developed the unfortunate habit of training and arming insurgents, then dropping them when they become inconvenient. As a result, there is a certain lack of long-term trust on the part of the native inhabitants." In terms of lively description, "The Game" is certainly up to par. King is both funny and merciless in depicting the mid-'20s social whirl. The ship that transports Holmes and Russell is filled with upper-class silliness -- with its marriage-hunting flappers and supercilious aristocrats -- and the Raj is racist, extravagant, and unsettling. Not that the pair indulge much in British India, preferring to travel incognito to the fictional realm of Khanpur.

Indeed, a trace of the earlier books surfaces as Holmes transforms himself and Russell into traveling magicians, and Holmes's lessons about the power of close observation beget life-or-death consequences. Here King's two sources mesh: Holmes's tests echo Kim's "jewel game," the memory-training exercise in which an observer has seconds to mentally record a gathering of objects. As expected, Russell is an exemplary pupil, listing such objects as "three mismatched collar studs; a nubbin of India rubber; two paper-clips, one of them Italian . . . a half-penny, and a farthing," etc., in a recital that also serves to further the sense of place and time.

But there is too much missing in this book, which is really more of an adventure novel (like "Kim") than a good old-fashioned whodunit. Once the case actually begins, for example, those legendary powers of observation and deduction do not amount to much. A near-fatal "accident" is left unexplained, although a primary suspect is exonerated. The death of several British agents is never fully followed up. Russell must use her Holmes-trained memory to recount some passages through dark rooms, but that's about it. Instead of deduction and intellectual surmise, we're treated to a scenic series of escapades that allow Russell to shine (particularly on two harrowing hunting expeditions) but don't make her think. Even the tempestuous romance that spiced up the earlier books is gone, lingering only in the occasional reference to Russell's luxurious mane of blond hair, which her husband enjoys brushing.

Throughout, King also chooses to ignore the inevitable depredations of age: Holmes, supposedly in his 60s, is still capable of carrying an unconscious man on his shoulders for miles. If Holmes and Russell continue to share adventures, perhaps his toughness of mind can be similarly maintained. This book sorely misses the intellectual sparring that made the beginning of this series so much fun, and its hero needs a real mystery to solve. Holmes might not be a bad candidate to save the empire, but he needs to start by studying the details.

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