Like an object so familiar to the eyes it goes unseen, I had habitually walked past my own history ... my entire childhood had become a self-inflicted blind spot -- I had complacently passed by the locked rooms of my past for so long, fingering the key in my pocket, that I no longer knew where to find the door. (p. 279)After leaving India, Holmes and Russell set sail for San Francisco, where Mary Russell's former home requires her attention. She is beset, on board ship, by three recurrent nightmares: objects flying towards her, a man with no face, a house with hidden rooms to which she holds the key. Holmes suggests that they are memories of her past, but Russell refuses to accept this. She'd had a happy childhood, she hadn't been in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906, and there is no mystery -- though, for Russell as sole survivor, a great deal of guilt -- about the car accident that killed the rest of her family.
The process of re-membering her past -- the Chinese couple who were cook and gardener to Mary's parents; her childhood friend Flo, now a flapper and just the sort of bad influence Mary needs; the cryptic legal injunction that prohibits anyone unrelated to the family gaining entry to the house; the psychiatrist who helped her after the accident -- leads Russell to question many of her assumptions about herself. It also gives Holmes the opportunity to turn his considerable psychological talents upon his wife -- not merely by asking all-too-perceptive questions concerning her childhood, but also by a wickedly accurate process of emotional manipulation.
There are indications that Holmes is being mellowed by marriage, but it doesn't prevent him being thoroughly competent when it comes to investigation. He encounters (and gets the drop on) one Dashiel Hammett, aspiring crime writer, and enlists his aid in unravelling some of the mystery. There's also feng shui, some exploration of coincidence versus fate ("those who perceive the dragon's path may alter it"), and a car chase through Chinatown.
I think this may be my favourite of the Mary Russell novels: possibly because of the psychological elements, possibly because for the first time there are sections of narrative from Holmes' point of view (albeit in third person). Russell's smooth competent façade crumbles; Holmes uses his knowledge of human nature, not before time, on the conundrum he married. Issues raised in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which have coloured Mary Russell's character and behaviour throughout the series to date, are finally in the foreground, and make as compelling a mystery as any that the partnership has investigated.