that I can’t tell inside the world of Mary Russell. So I decided
to write a few blogs about those stories, and what
I could do with them, and them alone.
I’ve been thinking about the non-Russells partly because I’ve been writing a standalone novel—but also because the act of writing that standalone has returned me to the raw basics of storytelling. Namely: how do I do it, and why? What can I do with fiction that I can’t do by writing history, or poetry, or blog posts? And once I choose fiction, what kinds of stories can I set amidst a series of historical make-believe, and what kinds can’t I tell there?
I remember some years ago reading the most recent of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books—a brilliantly jocular series about a sports agent and his sociopathic sidekick—and thinking that the last couple of outings seemed to be growing less comfortable with the premise. I wasn’t surprised when Harlan branched out into big standalone thrillers: he’d been trying to write that kind of a story within the Myrons, and it didn’t fit.
I realized early on that there were stories I couldn’t put in a Russell & Holmes setting. After The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Letter of Mary, I sat down to tell a story about a female Rembrandt—and I couldn’t find a way in. Oh, I could have planted a 1920s woman artist in my essentially whimsical series (and did, in The Language of Bees) but not one that moved and acted the way I wanted her to. Not one who wrestled with what I wanted her to face.
In Laurie R. King’s A Grave Talent, a series of shocking murders has occurred, the victims far too innocent and defenseless. For lesbian Detective Kate Martinelli, just promoted to Homicide and paired with a seasoned cop who’s less than thrilled to be handed a green partner, it’s a difficult case that just keeps getting harder.
Then the police receive what appears to be a case-breaking lead: it seems that one of the residents of this odd colony is Vaun Adams, arguably the century’s greatest woman painter—and a notorious felon, convicted of a heinous crime.
Grave Talent began with two ideas: What would Rembrandt look like if he were a woman? And, Can I write a novel in which the protagonist does nothing?
The question of women in what are generally assumed to be men’s roles was one I had been poking around for years, although for the most part in the world of theology rather than crime fiction—I wrote my Masters thesis on the feminine aspects of the God of the Old Testament, and as a graduate student had co-led a seminar in Women in the New Testament. First-century women rabbis, the influence Moses’ wife had on the future of Judaism, God as Mother: all topics I had explored. (To say nothing of the practical applications of The Feminine, since I also had small children at the time.)
So, the seed: Artists are possessed by their vision of the world and their need to give it expression. And the greater the artist, the more complete the possession—and, the more impossible they are as human beings: egomaniacal, manipulative, and willing to devour every scrap of energy in their vicinity…and mostly male.
Whether by nature or by upbringing, fewer women are so thoroughly possessed by this near-pathological self-importance. But if we did have a woman like this, and if she did possess the inborn talent that goes far to justifying the artist’s egomania, what would she look like, and how would it shape the world around her? Yes, the question is usually, Why have there been no great woman artists? In A Grave Talent we ask rather, If confronted by a truly great woman artist, how would the world react?
Vaun Adams is less a character in the book than she is a force of nature. Her raw and uncontrollable talent, her utter fixation on the canvas at hand and the resultant blindness to those around her, changes everything she comes near: Like a black hole, the intensity of her presence tugs everyone else out of their given orbits.
As such, Vaun is both the book’s central character and a character totally apart from the action. She—her talent—forms the central axis of the story, and all the other characters—neighbors, lovers, the police, the murderer—spin madly around the solidity of her presence. Yet she does act, at the very end: She abandons her aloofness, comes out of her extreme retreat, and plays a role.
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Excerpt, discussion guide, and order information are here.