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Island of the Mad: 09/01/18
Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King is the fifteenth of the Mary Russell mysteries. Mary is called to help find a missing woman who was on a supervised outing from Bedlam. Sherlock, meanwhile, is pressed into doing some dirty work for Mycroft in Venice as Mussolini is taking hold of Italy. If you know anything about Venice, you can see both by the title and the cover art that their two investigations merge into one larger and more dangerous mission.
The missing woman's plot was pretty much the introduction to the Mussolini plot. Very early on it's well established that she is probably a lesbian and she and her nurse have run off to Venice to be together because circumstances have made Bedlam unsafe for them.
But of course her brother, the man in charge of the estate and the title and the one most eager to dispose of her so he can have total control over both, follows her to Venice. He's also a fascist sympathizer (as was Britain officially at the time this book is set).
With these period pieces it's so tempting to make the fictional characters cross paths with nonfictional ones. The Murdoch Mysteries television series has made twelve seasons out of doing this. In this book, la celebrità del romanzo, is none other than Cole Porter.
Porter being there as the BIG QUEER of the book is the point where I started to lose my grip. Here's the thing: his personal life is still notorious. His music is still popular. He's probably more popular and more an icon now than he was then. He was at the time a wealthy weirdo who wrote racy songs that flew under the radar enough to avoid censorship. They were songs that everyone knew were dirty and they were fun to dance to and he was fun to gossip about.
But here, his caricaturization is awkward and forced. There are painful passages where Sherlock and Mary discuss Porter's marriage and his sexuality in something that is neither exactly the language of the time nor is it modern language. It's just embarrassing and comes off as perhaps the author being embarrassed writing it. All the while, one could (and should) be wondering about the age difference between Mary and Russell. Their fictional marriage is frankly weirder and more off putting than anything associated with Cole Porter.
The last straw for me was the climax where the British fascists are exposed to Mycroft's satisfaction. The scene takes place at a crossdressing party that reads like a mashup of Cabaret, The Producers and the remake of To Be or Not to Be.