The List

Thanks to you good people who rushed out in Week One and plunked down your hard-earned dollars for Dreaming Spies, the book will appear in the number eight slot on the New York Times bestseller list, and #10 on the Indie Bookstore bestseller list.  This makes me very happy, not in the least because it convinces my publisher that people might be interested in my stories.

Thank you.

Dreaming Spies low Res JPEG

Mary Russell’s War (thirty): to the service of the King


23 February 1915

Each day, the young son of the village postmistress comes cycling up the lane to bring us, among the various requests from cook and aunt, my day’s copy of The Times. My aunt seems to think this inappropriate reading material, given my sex and age, but it is the newspaper my parents used to read, and the font is familiar to me (although the quality of the paper itself seems to have slipped somewhat, under the pressures of Wartime shortages.)

It is, I admit, a more difficult means of following the world’s events than the San Francisco Chronicle used to be. That paper’s preference for the more sensational headlines made for a more entertaining experience, one being certain to find out about daring criminal exploits, smuggling, and the abduction of young girls than about the War dead and the dry decisions of Crown Courts.

Still, even the Times acknowledges the need for the softer interests among the hard edges of international affairs. The Queen, it seems, has been visiting her “Work for Women Fund” workrooms, a training college where unemployed girls are taught the skills of dressmaking, ironing, and kitchen. Only some of them, it seems, are deemed capable of learning the demanding skills of the clerk.

A schoolboy of 13 years has taken ten shillings of his choir money and set off for the Front, sleeping rough and carrying luggage for tips. When retrieved, he was disappointed to hear that he cannot enlist as a drummer boy for another year.

In the meantime, the King has been inspecting a collection of motor ambulances at the Palace. They, too, are on their way to the Front, under the auspices of the Red Cross. Posters urge enlistment, shops arrange goods on sparse shelves, there is talk of gathering scrap metal and iron fences to be melted down into armament. And half the population of Britain sits at home and feeds the children.

Why are women permitted the needle, even the type-writing machine, but not the rifle? Surely chivalry is a dangerous luxury when the enemy is a short distance of water away? Perhaps, in the end, some leeway may open up, that the “gentler sex” may be granted the right, if not to fire a rifle across no-man’s land, then at least to drive to the aid of wounded riflemen, perhaps in those very Red Cross ambulances?

My farm’s motorcar—my motorcar, strictly speaking—currently sits upon blocks of wood at the back of the stables. However, even if I were to take it down, fill the tyres, and get it running, I would only then come up against the shortages of gasoline. Why did I not insist that Father teach me to drive, once my feet would reach the controls? Still, there are motors occasionally to be seen in the village. One of them belongs to the local doctor, who is to be seen, pressed up against the windscreen with a worried look on his face. This has given me a plan: I shall invent an ailment, to get me in to see him, and tell him he needs a chauffeur. (Chauffeuse?)

The actual skills of driving will no doubt be quickly learned—Patrick will have to teach me, once confronted with the fait accomplis of my new position.  And when I am expert enough, I can put my name forward for the Front.

All sorts of men drive. How hard could it be?

*  *

Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.

Lost grey matter

Since the airlines (one of three) seem to have misplaced Laurie’s brain somewhere between Houston and Los Angeles (or perhaps in Phoenix), Mary Russell’s War will return as soon as the lost brain has been located and delivered to her door.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of yesterday’s fab event put together by the Mission Viejo library, with decorations, two kinds of tea on the tables (English and Japanese) in the appropriate tea pots, and platters of Girl Scout cookies, with tables laid with white cloths by some young volunteers and books schlepped in and sold by San Diego’s great Mysterious Galaxy bookstore.  Thank you, everyone!Image 1

Tour, and toilets!

I hope you’ve managed to get your hands (and your eyes) on a copy of Dreaming Spies?  If not, I’ll be all over in the next couple of weeks, and I’m happy to sign one for you.  All my events are listed here.  Oh, and I should mention that there are still places left at the Chicago University Club luncheon on the 27th, you need to give them a ring (yes, they’re old school) at (847) 446-8880.

Also, there’s a new book(let), something I co-wrote with the Poisoned Pen’s Barbara Peters: m.php

Not in Kansas any more, TOTO

by Laurie R King & Barbara Peters


A cultural exploration of the Japanese bath-room, (toilet and bath)

with side-excursions into shoes, maps, irrigation pipes,

the effects of earthquakes on architecture,

the problems of finding a bed during cherry-blossom time,

and the uncooperative nature of diesel fuel.

A travelogue with a limited point of view, a heavily illustrated anthropological monograph, and really just a fun project that came about when Barbara and I fell in love with Japanese toilets.  We’ll be signing it when I’m in Scottsdale on Saturday, you can order a copy here.

Mary Russell’s War (twenty-nine): a young lieutenant


16 February 1915

February is not a time of year where one may easily wander the Downlands with a Latin text in hand. If the pages are not blown asunder, they are rendered into sodden masses of the original pulp, and in either event, are difficult to manipulate by half-frozen fingers.

So—needs must—I have made my scholar’s residence in the warmth and dry of the stables, where my aunt never ventures. Patrick is a pleasantly unobtrusive companion, who does little more than murmur a greeting on his way to and fro. The main drawback is the dimness of the further reaches, making for an oscillation between the bright front of the stables and the warm depths of it.

Three days ago I was surprised to hear the approach of voices. I hastily gathered my things, preparing to flee into the dark recesses, but neither voice seemed to belong to my aunt. Unless she was a silent partner to the conversation—which I thought unlikely—it was Patrick and someone else.

The someone else was a boy. He halted just inside the door, startled by my sudden appearance from the straw-lined manger where I nestled. Patrick stopped too, having clearly forgotten that I would be there.

“Ah,” he said. “Miss Mary. Pardon the interruption, we’ll be gone, I’d just—”

“Oh heavens no, you’re not disturbing me. In fact, you’re saving me from the imperfect subjunctive.” I looked at the boy, and Patrick made introductions.

“Miss Mary, this is one of your neighbours, Second Lieutenant Thomas Saunders,” he said. “Thomas, Miss Mary Russell, what lives in the house.”

I was surprised, since the young man did not seem very much older than I. He was also shorter, so I slumped a bit, having found that young men find height in a female somewhat intimidating, then thrust out my hand.

“How d’you do?” I said, a greeting he echoed.

“Thomas is off to France in a few days,” Patrick said. “A short leave before he goes to join his regiment.”

“I wanted to come and see how the horses were doing,” the young man explained. “I used to spend most of the summers here as a boy, helping Mr Mason with the horses. He sometimes let me drive them, when I’d helped him hitch them on the cart.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I remember you—Tommy, with a sister named…Mattie, was it?”

“That’s right, though she wants to be called Matilda now. And I remember you—you had the funny brother who knew everything, didn’t you? And the uncle who made those wizzer what-you-call-ems. Sky lanterns.”

“But…” I stopped. Mattie had been a little younger than I, but I’d have sworn that Tommy was only two years older. A seventeen year-old officer, on his way to the Front? I thought of the distant rumble of guns, and shuddered.

I must have been staring at him, because Patrick cleared his throat. “I’ll just let—”

“Would you like a cup of tea, Tom—er, Lieutenant Saunders?”

“Please, call me Tommy.”

I fled to the kitchen, which was blessedly empty of my aunt’s presence. I managed to assemble three mugs of tea and a plate of rather hacked-up seed cake (it was the end of the loaf), plus a large wedge of cheese and some uneven bread-and-butter sandwiches, and carried the laden tray out to the stables.

Males, I find, tend to overlook the looks of one’s kitchen efforts in favour of quantity, and it was no less so with Patrick and Tommy. They drank and ate, and we talked. About what, I cannot remember, really, although it is now scarcely forty-eight hours later.

We talked about normality, I suppose. Horses and shortages, childhood and California, his sister and my brother. Other than an awkward expression of condolence on his part, death was ignored, both those in the past and the deaths taking part across the Channel. Under the effects of food, drink, and conversation, Tommy’s stilted manner faded, and his face resumed something of the animation I remembered.

He went home soon thereafter, but he came back yesterday, and again today. We sat in the stables while Patrick worked, talking about his school and my problems with Latin and where the world was going, and what we wanted to do when it was over. Over those three conversations, his face seemed to undergo an oddly divided change: he began to look both younger, more like to the boy I had known, yet at the same time older, more assured.

My mother had been fond of him, I remembered. I could picture her laughing at one of his antics. I was hit by the sudden image of this young officer, half a dozen years ago, handing her a rough bouquet of flowers from his mother’s garden.

“Do you need anything?” I interrupted, causing him to look a question at me. “I mean, a book to take with you, or a packet of tea? Some warm socks perhaps?”

In the end, he took a small book of poetry and the rest of the cheese. And when he left, he gave me a kiss on the cheek, and pressed my hand in his.

We both promised to write.

*  *

Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.