The Moor

The Moor
The Moor

The Moor is the fourth book published it the Mary Russell series written by Laurie R. King.  The Moor was published in 1998.  I read the first three novels in the series in 2005, but when I read this novel I hardly remembered much from the previous novels except that I really enjoyed them.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes investigate strange goings-on on Dartmoor. Reprising the setting and some of the plotlines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Russell come to the aid of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

This novel will probably be either loved or hated.  I tended to like the book quite a bit. The main thing about this book is that its plot and the storyline are really not very good. Holmes and Russell are in Dartmoor and if you know anything about moors it’s that they are not very nice. (Think about Wuthering Heights.) Moors are cold, desolate, scary, threatening, challenging, and vicious. I have never been to a “moor” but every time I read about them, I see the same characteristics. I picture terrain that is choppy, difficult, and jagged. I picture weather that is foggy, windy, and cold. It seems anyone that hangs out on moors gets lost, injured, or goes a bit off their rocker. That The Moor is set in such a place takes some stamina from the reader to get through because you know most of the book will be dealing with the challenges the setting places on the characters.  In fact, straightaway we are familiarized with this as Russell travels at night by train to the nearest train station in Coryton and then has to carry a rucksack two miles on uneven ground on a moonless night to meet Holmes who is at Lew House.

For the next 270 pages, most of what happens is inessential to a fast-paced, tension-ridden mystery. Luckily, I do not think The Moor is such a book.  Russell and Holmes truck about the moor looking for information – they don’t find any. This will probably annoy the reader as we are given chapters and chapters of storyline in which we do nothing but familiarize ourselves with the locals, learn some anecdotes, but the characters really do not seem to gain ground on their investigation.  After every foray onto the moor, Russell returns to the Reverend Baring-Gould’s home for warming baths and teas. She’s also usually muddy and highly bruised. In fact, for the majority of the book, it can seem like Russell drinks ridiculously copious amounts of hot tea and takes an inordinate number of baths.

On one of these forays, Holmes and Russell are out on the moor together, and Russell comments on Holmes’ uncanny skill in negotiating the terrain in her witty manner:

“He looked as if he were returning from a gentle day’s shooting; I seemed to have spent the day wrestling a herd of escaped pigs through a bog.”

However, I did not mind this seemingly pointless clambering around the moor. And I was not irritated by the teas and baths. Russell is such a charming and confident character that I love just “spending the day” with her. There is a lot of good writing skill when the author is able to make you enjoy just spending time with the character without the pressure of a storyline or plot. Very, very few authors/books can do this. But something about Russell is just pleasant to be around. One of the things I like about Russell is how she is not the some wilting flower woman overwrought with emotion or squeemishness. Russell thinks nothing of trekking around the countryside alone, handling rifles, falling off of horses, or hanging out in the local pub.  This is not to say that she is some sort of brash ruffian. Somehow, Russell is able to pull off being both educated and intellectual while being adventurous and durable. It’s fun to read a female character like this.  Holmes is a supporting character in the series, but he adds to the goodness of the novel. He does not coddle Russell – though he shows concern for her. I guess, in some way, the relationship and interaction between the two characters is really interesting and fun. I do not seem to mind what Russell and Holmes are involved with as long as I get to spend time with them.

The Reverend Baring-Gould starts off as an enigmatic character, but halfway through the novel he just turns into a sort of focal point:  Russell and Holmes crash at his mansion and consult him when they want to know some folklore or geographic fact. Baring-Gould is a ninety year old churchman who has summoned Holmes because of the recent appearances of a “haunted” carriage and dog on the moor.  One of the things the reader learns from Baring-Gould is about these tors that populate the moor.  A tor is a large, free-standing residual mass (rock outcrop) that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest. In my mind I pictured Stonehenge sometimes.

On these Russell comments:  “I personally decided were the result of near terminal boredom on the part of the natives, who would have found heaving large rocks into upright lines an exciting alternative to watching the fog blow about….”

In any case, the author makes the moor easily imaginable for the reader and though a moor is a desolate and dreary place, the book is still engaging.  Unfortunately, the plot is not very captivating and the author loses her hold on several threads throughout.  One of these is Miss Baskerville, whom Russell interviews and then basically dismisses. The villain, Ketteridge, is easily identified the first moment we meet him, the ending is absurdly simple in its brevity.  The plot just is not very well managed. However, it’s all made up for with giving the reader time to roam around with Russell and, yes, take baths and drink tea. (By the middle of the book, I was ready to just go and make tea for the heck of it.)  Baring-Gould has an indefatigeable maid/cook named Miss Elliot who seems to think she can fix all the problems in the world by providing consumables to Russell, Holmes, and Baring-Gould himself.

In the end of the book in chapter twenty four, Baring-Gould is having one of his rambling sessions of conversation and I found this section rather interesting:

“I am sure you have heard of this crystal wireless set which seems certain to achieve popularity; I imagine that the resultant instant communication will complete what modern education and quick travel have begun, and we will soon see the death of regionalism and individuality.  Haven’t you found this, Holmes?  The world is becoming filled with sameness, with men and women as like as marbles. Not a true eccentric in sight.”

I suppose instead of calling this novel a mystery, one should consider it a meandering description of the isolated folk who dwell on or near the mostly inhospitable moor. I recommend reading this novel in the winter. When what you are reading combined with the outside weather makes you chilled, you can draw a bath and brew some tea.

4 stars

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