'...I will not feed my men off the suffering of women.’ Good God: The subversive sentiments of W.S. Gilbert had converted this hereditary Moroccan cut-throat into a Frederic of morality. I had never before thought of the Savoy operas as a tool of Anarchic philosophy. (p. 290)
The eleventh novel featuring the redoubtable Mary Russell (and her husband Sherlock Holmes), Pirate King doesn't live up to previous novels in the sequence. The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive [my review here] were almost mythic in their scope and resonance: Pirate King is a light-hearted romp, set in the nascent film industry of England in the 1920s. Randolph Fflytte is making a movie version of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Pirates of Penzance -- with thirteen blonde, blue-eyed, romantically-inclined English actresses, and a supporting cast of real pirates. (Arrrr!) Fflytte's film company has been at the centre of some criminal activity, so Mary Russell attaches herself to the project and heads first to Lisbon, and then to Morocco. The criminal intentions she uncovers are not exactly what she expected ...
There are a lot of things to like in Pirate King. Mary Russell is intelligent, quick-witted and free from sentimentality. Some of the 'actresses' are acting more than their roles as the Major-General's daughters. There is swashbuckling, crossdressing, and Fernando Pessoa, a poet who finds pirates enormously (and erotically) exciting. (Pessoa is not a fiction.) Also a parrot given to proclaiming Anarchist slogans.
But Russell and Holmes are apart for more than half the book, which means we miss out on the interplay between them. There's plenty of farce, and a lot of stupid pirates, but Pirate King lacks the meat and complexity of previous Russell novels. It also lacks context: after reading the previous two novels back-to-back, I wrote "The story told in The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive ends on something of a minor key. Things will never be the same -- in good ways and bad. I want to see how Holmes and Russell work through that situation." But we don't see that. The events of the previous books are barely mentioned.
I wonder if the change of key is intentional on King's part? Apparently she's keen to write 'a non-Russell book' but her fans and publishers keep pushing for more Russell. After The God of the Hive, this is completely understandable. Perhaps Pirate King will turn down the heat a bit.