Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice, Mary Russell, are forced to flee Britain at the end of 1918. There are various choices as to where to go, each destination harbouring some kind of useful, governmental task to be undertaken for Holmes' brother, Mycroft. They plump for Palestine, newly occupied by the British who have recently ousted the Turks from the region. Mycroft, of course, has not told them the nature of the task he wants them to perform in Palestine: they have to discover that for themselves.
They're met by two Arab brothers, Ali and Mahmoud, who're not at all pleased to have to nursemaid two visitors from Britain and even more appalled when they discover that one of them is a young woman. Holmes and Mary disguise themselves as Arabs, Mary insisting that she will not pretend to be an Arab woman and cover herself in a burka - thus she 'becomes' a male, Arab youth. Their Arab guides are scandalised.
A journey around Palestine ensues, during which they come across several murders of Jews and Arabs alike. And there are rumours. Is there a plot and if so who is behind it and what is their intention? The region is like a tinderbox, one spark and the whole lot will ignite... which may be what some criminal mastermind intends. Holmes and Mary experience everything Palestine can throw at them, arid terrain, oppressive heat, flea-ridden accommodation, cliff-top monastries, a murder attempt, kidnapping. And then there is Jerusalem, where things become really exciting...
I finished this on Friday and here I am on Sunday still thinking about it. Some books affect you that way and it's often hard to see why that is. Historically, it was a fascinating read. A couple of books I've read recently have touched on the troubles in the Middle East... Carol Drinkwater's, The Olive Route, and there's a section in the non-fiction I'm currently reading, The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane, where he walks in Israel and Palestine. Both talk about the heartbreaking situation there and in O Jerusalem Laurie King goes some way to explaining how the seeds of the trouble were sown after World War One. The British had just ousted the Turks from Palestine and the whole region had become dangerous to travel in. I don't know enough to express an opinion on either the history of the region, going back to biblical times, or the current situation, other than to say it's complicated and tragic. I need to read more about it and that's the truth.
Aside from the obvious historical interest this is a great 'ripping yarn'. 'Loads' going on as Holmes and Mary Russell stagger from one adventure to another. It's great fun, but at the same time thought provoking and informative. It is slightly confusing in that the timeline here is not after the last book, The Moor, but after, I think, book one, which is The Beekeeper's Apprentice. So their relationship is still in its fledgling state, ie. they're not married as they are in The Moor and Mary is still struggling to make Holmes think of her as a partner rather than an apprentice. Like her, I found his attitude rather condescending, but then Sherlock Holmes was ever thus with everyone. Mary Russell is one of my all time favourite fictional characters. I like her determination to be included in the action, not to be thought of as a weak, helpless woman and to stand up for herself. She has to prove herself and does so with aplomb.
It won't be years before I read the next Mary Russell book, Justice Hall. I don't have a copy of it unfortunately (I own several after that) but I shall be grabbing myself a copy as soon as I can. It's a terrific series, well written, always historically interesting... and fun!