To Play the Fool and With Child, Laurie R. King
It's been a while since I've read three books in a row by the same author. This used to be a regular pattern in my reading, particularly when I discovered new authors, and especially if their backlists were serial novels. I read Patrick O'Brian, Dorothy Dunnett, Angela Thirkell, and Deborah Crombie, among others, in big chunks, with hardly a breath in between, and I tended to re-read them in the same way. I'm not sure when that changed. There was something intoxicating about immersing myself in a fictional world for weeks at a time, watching people's lives change with the world around them.
Laurie R. King was another author that I read in chunks, starting with the Mary Russell novels (there were five published at the time) and moving on to the Kate Martinelli books (then a four-book series). As I mentioned in my post this week about the first Kate novel, A Grave Talent, when I finished re-reading it I found myself in a familiar pattern, picking up the second, To Play the Fool.
As I also mentioned in the post, in the first book King makes something of a mystery of the identity of Kate's housemate Lee. For anyone who wants to solve that mystery on her own, Lee's identity (on several levels) plays a major role in these books, and I can't manage King's level of caginess in discussing the later books, so you might consider this a spoiler warning.
To Play the Fool opens with a cremation, as the homeless people living in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park gather around a pyre holding the remains of Theophilus, a dog belonging to one of the group. Three weeks later, there is another fire, but this time the corpse is his owner, John, who has been murdered. Al Hawkin and his partner Kate are assigned the case. At the conclusion of the Vaun Adams case, the killer shot Lee, and the bullet damaged her spine. Kate was on leave for months, while Lee fought for her life and then struggled to recover the use of her legs. Though Kate had been firmly in the closet, a source of tension in their relationship, she came out in a blaze of publicity now, demanding health care coverage for Lee as a domestic partner. Her new and unwelcome role as the face of gays in law enforcement landed her in the middle of a high-profile case involving the murder of a lesbian activist. When it ended badly, the poster child took the fall. The murder of John marks Kate's return to active duty.
As they question the homeless, Kate and Al soon hear about Brother Erasmus, who spends Sundays holding services and ministering to the homeless in the park. They learn that he spends weekdays across the bay in Berkeley, at the Graduate Theological Union. When Kate tracks him down there, she discovers that Erasmus is a Holy Fool, part of a long tradition as an individual who in the words of one authority "feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or who provokes shock or outrage by . . . deliberate unruliness" (a modern branch of the Fools movement has a website here). Erasmus will speak only in quotations or will mime his meaning, which frustrates the investigators seeking clear answers. Kate delves deep into the Fools movement (which seems to fascinate Laurie King), and she welcomes Lee's interest and assistance as a sign of further healing. In addition to investigating the Fools, she and Hawkin must discover who John was and why someone wanted him dead. Though King sometimes seems more interested in Erasmus and his fellow Fools, she brings the mystery to a neat and satisfying conclusion.
At the end of To Play the Fool, both Kate and Lee appear to be healing, moving forward, coping with Lee's care and finding a balance in their changed relationship. As With Child opens, eight months later, their lives have changed completely. Kate is alone in their house one morning when the door-bell rings. It is Jules Cameron, the 12-year-old daughter of Al Hawkin's girlfriend Jani (whom we met briefly in the first book). Jules asks Kate's help. She has befriended a homeless boy living in a park near her home in Palo Alto. The boy, Dio, has disappeared, and she wants Kate to find him. In between her other cases, Kate keeps an eye out for him, partly as a favor to her partner and partly for Jules herself. Kate lost her younger sister to a drunk driver, and she finds Jules sliding into that role. Gradually we learn that Kate is alone because Lee has gone to stay with her aunt up in Washington State. Lee's Aunt Agatha, living in the San Juan Islands, reminds me of Rae Newborn, the central character in King's Folly, perhaps her best book. Like Rae, Lee flees to the islands to recover, to find her independence again in hard work and primitive living conditions. But she leaves Kate behind, uncomprehending, deeply hurt and furious, terrified of losing Lee.
Like Dorothy L. Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, this is a love story with detective interludes - the love in different relationships, between couples, parents and children, friends, working partners. Left alone, Kate must find her own way, find her balance again, and it is very satisfying to watch this happen. Her work is an important part of that, as is her friendship with Jules. When Al and Jani become engaged and plan their wedding, Jules asks to stay with Kate while they go on their honeymoon. After consultation with Al, Kate agrees. She suggests that they take a trip of their own, drive north, perhaps visit Lee. On that road trip, Jules disappears and incredibly, Kate becomes a person of interest in the case. The search for Jules dominates the second half of the book, but where Kate was on her own looking for Dio, all the power of law enforcement is on the case here, in part because of fears that she might be the victim of a notorious serial killer. Though Kate can play no official role, she follows her own lines of investigation, refusing to give up on Jules. Both Dio and Lee are drawn back to help, and Kate believes the boy may have some crucial information, perhaps something from Jani and Jules' past.
This is my favorite in the series. It is the darkest, with its web of complicated relationships and raw emotions, and also with its depiction of violence against children (though never explicit). The ending isn't a tidy one with everything all better, but it does bring closure and the possibilities of healing.
There are two more books in this series, though for now I'm ready to read something else. But one thing I remember from the block reading hasn't changed: after spending a week with Kate and Lee, I'm finding it hard to settle down to something else.