In the combined desire to reread the Holmes/Russell series and still hurry to get to Pirate King, I skipped two books: Letter of Mary I did not have, and O Jerusalem was a departure of setting and plotline, and took place a step out of time in the series, so that I felt safe leaving it out for the time being. (I will get back to it before long.) Such is the beauty of this series that it was perfectly possible to do so and still happily read this sixth book, which not only opens hours after Holmes and Russell return home from the adventures of the fourth book but also picks up the threads of the fifth book, which took place in the middle of the first.
I know, but it really does make perfect sense. The timing and placement of the books in the series is actually quite brilliant planning, if planned it was – and if it wasn’t, perhaps it’s even more brilliant.
Once again, Holmes and Russell have only the briefest of respites from their travels before they are haled off on another urgent undertaking, to help another old friend in desperate need. Not a need for himself, but that of his closest friend, his all-but brother, who has found himself with no honorable choice but to leave the work he has loved and lived for for decades in the Middle-east to come back to England to play lord of the manor in his family seat, Justice Hall. It’s a variation on a theme often played in historical and fantasy novels: the man who never expected to be heir. Marsh Hughenfort was the younger son, and his elder brother had a son – but upon the relatively early death of the brother and the mysterious death of the nephew somewhere on the frontlines of WWI, the title is his. The problem is that his near-brother believes it will kill him, and he wants Holmes and Russell to come and convince him he should shirk his duty and return to the desert. With a sigh (and some grumbling from Russell), the pair heed the call to investigate the nephew’s death and, making no promises, to see what they can do in the matter of convincing Marsh to cede the title that will leave him a virtual zombie.
I loved this book. I loved the double lives – not only of the “guest” protagonists, but of Holmes and Russell (for nearly every case necessitates some degree of false face) and also of others in the cast. I loved the house, and its character; I blunder through that a little more below, but it takes a special gift for a writer to successfully depict a setting with personality without drifting into a fantasy lane. And most of all I loved the people, familiar and new (or altered), living and dead, who filled the story. Setting and characters are all imbued with their own lives and thoughts and business, into which the reader is privileged to be given a brief glimpse.
Justice Hall is an elegy to all that WWI destroyed – the innocence, the security, a generation of youth and promise gone or broken or soured to cynicism. At this distance of space and time it’s hard to grasp the gaping wound the Great War left on England – hard, that is, without reading something like this. Here it all becomes much clearer – the chaos and the pain, and the ruination of so many lives. The waste.
I’m not sure this is going to come out as I want it to, but here goes. The book is also a testimony to what a lord should be, the classic ideal of the feudal establishment – the protector and pillar of his people. By this I don’t mean shiny-faced happy peasants with their mattocks on their shoulders pulling forelocks to their lord and master as he rides haughtily by on his hunter, and later he sits down to a feast in his lofty hall while they eat their gruel in their hovel. That’s not a model of anything except bad cliché. As such, as it is so often seen in fiction (and fact): the system is rife with abuse and advantage-takers, unfair to everyone except the “nobles” at the top of the pyramid. But here the reader is given a glimpse of a platonic ideal in which the family born to power respects it as well as those in its care, and uses the power and wealth of its position to ease life not only for its own immediate members but for its dependents. No one starves on the lands overseen by Justice Hall. The Hughenforts care for and look after their people, and their people in turn are proud of their allegiance to the Hughenforts – it’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship. I wonder how often (if ever) this ideal was ever achieved in reality.
It is right and just that this is how it is here – because without the strength and desirability of the estate, there would be no conflict about its inheritance. The draw of Justice Hall is much more than simply familial duty or nostalgia for a childhood home. This book is a love story, on many levels … There is the unorthodox love between Russell and Holmes, of course. There is the filial love between the cousins, which will not allow Alastair to see Marsh core out the heart of him even for Justice Hall. Love of country – which is part of what has kept Marsh and Alastair away from England for so long, and why their nephew went willingly to his death, and why so many, one way or another, lost the lives they had before the war. And duty, that rare sort of duty not performed through mere obligation.
And, not least of all, there is the love that Laurie R. King has for her characters and her work. You can’t produce something like this without loving what you do, and caring about the people who will read it. That makes itself felt. And is very much appreciated.