Over the holidays, one of our major cleaning tasks was to pull all of our books off our various bookshelves, out from under our bed, in our dresser, in the closets, etc. and sort them. We sorted them into boxes to be donated to the library, boxes to put into storage, a pile to put into the “secondary” bookshelf, and then the honored books that would go into our living room bookshelf. These would be books that had importance to us—some child raising books, our scripts and monologue books, books written by friends of ours, and our favorite novels and nonfiction stories.
While some of my favorite serial authors were relegated to the “secondary” bookshelf, there was one author who retained the place of honor in our living room: Laurie King. Her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books are some of my favorite novels. She’s an intelligent, courageous writer who manages to work surprising depth into stories that are fast-paced and exciting.
Knowing how much I liked the Russell/Holmes books and her other book A Darker Place, I checked out of the library a couple of books from her other series: Kate Martinelli. The first one I read disappointed me so much that I returned them both to the library without ever reading the second one. The book lacked the intrigue and daring that characterized King’s other books.
Nonetheless, I decided to give her another shot recently, and borrowed To Play a Fool from the library. I’m glad that I did.
To Play a Fool is of the caliber I’ve come to expect from King. The characters are interesting and the story is unusual. It is set in San Francisco and the main character is a police officer, Kate Martinelli.
The book opens with the cremation of a dog by a group of homeless people. The police are called in as it breaks a few park regulations, but no one is overly concerned about it. They are more concerned the next week when the dog’s owner is cremated by the same group of homeless people. The presentation of these two events is presented in a rather humorous manner without sacrificing any of the serious overtones of a man’s demise and disposal.
The police quickly learn that the dead man died not from natural causes, but from being coshed in the head. Kate Martinelli and her partner are sent to investigate and they quickly meet an unusual homeless man who calls himself Erasmus.
Laurie King’s characters are typically highly intelligent individuals with a great degree of perspicacity and education. Kate Martinelli is an exception. She is a tough street cop who is clever, but not highly educated or of genius intelligence. Her partner, a psychologist, balances her out in the education field, but she tends to play a background role in most of the book.
The advantage to portraying Martinelli as a person with an average intelligence is that King is able to explain more to the readers. Martinelli has to ask questions of the people she meets so that she can understand what is happening, this gives the reader an opportunity to learn with her.
Erasmus is by far the most fascinating character in the novel from the moment you meet him until long after you learn all of his past secrets. As is her wont, King takes a character that would be easy to stereotype and then manages to step back from each of those stereotypes to portray a real person with all the levels of complexity that human beings possess. Erasmus is a self-proclaimed Fool. Every word that he speaks is a quotation from great literature—the Bible, Shakespeare, philosophers, the Koran, and other works. He posses information important to Martinelli’s investigation, but she first must break the code of his language in order to extract the information.
I would be giving King short shrift if I referred only to these two main characters. All of King’s characters in this book are well-drawn and memorable. She gives them each something to make them unique, something beyond a cardboard cutout that could be dropped into any setting. There is the flaming personal assistant that acts as chef, housekeeper, and aide to Kate and her domestic partner, Lee. There is the short, self-absorbed, and highly intense professor from England; the good-natured and generous Berkeley theology professor; and the flamboyant yet civilized homeless woman. In each case, no matter how small their part in the book, King is careful in their creation. She resists making anyone two-dimensional or totally predictable.
King’s writing, and To Play the Fool in particular, attracts me because of its originality. She’s not simply writing the same story that everyone has read 100 times already. She manages to break out of tired formulas even while remaining true to an already well-established genre.
There are two elements about To Play the Fool that struck me with its freshness and originality. The first was all the material surrounding the Fool movement. Being a sometimes student of medieval history, I thought I knew what a Fool was and how it would be woven into the story. I was wrong.
King explores the modern Fool movement and how its practitioners seek to combat real foolishness—selfishness, greed, violence, dishonesty—with their exaggerated, playful foolishness. Of course, it is always dangerous to hold up a mirror to another’s bad behavior and the Fools frequently suffered for their honesty. The information that King shares with us is fascinating—both from a historic and psychological point of view. I left the novel feeling that I had learned something of both interest and note.
The other element of the novel that made it different from others in its genre was the relationship between Kate and her domestic partner, Lee. Although the book does not dwell overlong on it, it makes us aware that Kate doesn’t have it easy as a police officer in a lesbian relationship that has made the news one too many times. Yet, the relationship between the two women is both sweet and touching without getting sappy or overwrought.
Lee was injured in the course of one of Kate’s investigations and she is now paralyzed and dependent on a wheelchair for transportation. The two of them are adjusting to this new life and having to heal both their bodies and their hearts. It is a relationship that is neither prurient nor sentimental and it makes for a fascinating read.
To Play a Fool captivated me. It engaged me on an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level. There are few mystery/cop novels that can claim to do that. It isn’t great literature—if only because it dates itself with its setting and its issues. Don’t take that as a black mark against it though. The book is well worth reading, as is most of King’s writing.
This review was originally published at Epinions.com http://www.epinions.com/review/To_Pla...