Laurie R. King is really good at what she does. Her characters are interesting, she plots well, and she’s really good on atmosphere. The prologue of Touchstone includes a wonderful passage in which a pair of hands intent on a task becomes a character, and she endows them with personality, even a sense of humor, while bringing to life the reader’s curiosity. In fact, none of the three characters in the prologue is identified: they are reduced to their own essences. It’s a great way to get the reader to take the bait.
So I was really excited at first. There’s another bravura section early on which casts a car as an “invader” into rural Cornwall, and all was well — until the narrative gradually ground to a halt. The plot concerns an attempt to foil a terrorist plot in the months leading up to England’s General Strike. The “touchstone” of the title is a World War I veteran who, after having been injured by a German shell, finds all of his perceptions so keen that he has withdrawn from society. Great concept, and he’s a very appealing character. But the book stays largely in the consciousness of an American FBI agent who fails to snap into life. The oleaginous black-clad (really? must we?) villain is just annoying and neither of the leading female characters rose beyond the sum of their physical descriptions. Which is odd, really, because King has created wonderful female characters. (I wondered if, in this case, she wasn’t hampered by sticking to what she imagined a male consciousness to be like. Not very flattering to guys; simplistic.)
And then, the books of King’s that I like aren’t the historical ones. She’s written a very successful series about a notional Sherlock Holmes protegée/wife named Mary Russell and I find those unreadable. So it occurs to me that maybe the problem is Laurie R. King writing historical fiction. She’s done the research, but the language feels stilted, for one thing. And then, I’m not sure she can really imagine herself back into the cast of mind of an earlier era. Because they did think differently. They saw things differently, felt and expected different things from life.
Maybe it’s too much to ask, to look for that historical sensibility grafted onto crackerjack plotting, because when all’s said and done this is supposed to be a mystery. But even the suspense part was disappointing. Despite scenes of unruly crowds, a number of fist-fights and not one but two bombs, the story arc was weighted down by exposition. Too much background about anarchists vs. socialists, too much detail on labor unrest in the U.S. and Britain. It takes a special reader to be entertained by a paragraph on the British Defence of the Realm Act.