To Play the Fool

One part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz is a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time.  Next we have To Play the Fool, the second Kate Martinelli novel, published in 1995.

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool.”
(Twelfth Night)

Once upon a time, I was an academic. Or at any rate, I was a chronic student.

I did a BA in Comparative Religion from UC Santa Cruz, part of the requirements for which was a final thesis project. I chose to do mine on “The Role of the Fool in Western Culture,” a topic that exercised my long-time interest in archetypal psychology and which drew on images ranging from the Trickster of Native American religion to the Russian Holy Fools movement of the Orthodox Church. As the header, I gave part of the song “American Pie”:

The jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he’d borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me.
And when the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown…

Sixteen years later I had one novel in print and another in the works, and the welcome but nonetheless pressing question from my editor, “What’s next?”

So being a good Californian, I recycled. I went back to the Fool and tried to envision what a holy fool would be in the modern world.

Of course, the Fool is a product of the feudal system. He (usually he) exists to guarantee that an absolute ruler has at least one person offering criticism. The Fool’s job is to remind the king that he is not God.

It is, as one might expect, a dangerous position. Kings do not always appreciate the voice of unreason, the introduction of doubt into absolute surety, the presence of chaos injected in a concretized society. Kings tend to become vexed, and to remove the heads of their critics.

However, if the Fool’s task of pointing out the tarnish on the crown depends on the presence of a crown, what does he do when all the world is crowned? Who plays the fool in a society of kings, when none of us have absolute power? That is the question around which I shaped Brother Erasmus.

One of the distinct characteristics of my particular Fool is that he speaks in the words of others. When asked a question, Erasmus retrieves a quote from the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, or a number of other sources and applies it to the situation at hand.

This makes the job of a police interrogation somewhat tricky.

Kate Martinelli is a homicide inspector of the San Francisco Police Department is the modern equivalent of a king’s armored knight. A police department can only function when it is built on concrete, based on the assumption that it alone bears the right, that it alone holds the authority. A cop faced with a Fool, one who answers the most straightforward question with a convoluted response, is like a king faced with a court jester.

It is hardly surprising that Kate Martinelli sympathizes with the urge to behead the upstart idiot.


  1. Chris on January 12, 2010 at 8:38 am

    The second LRK book I read, and one of my favourites – thus re-read a couple of time, and currently held in three different editions in my collection!


  2. Merrily on January 12, 2010 at 9:14 am

    This serves to remind me that I need to go back and re-read the Martinelli’s. Considering that I’ve read or listened to all the Russell books multiple times, I suppose I might be said to be neglecting Our Laurie’s other works!

  3. Strawberry Curls on January 12, 2010 at 10:15 am

    “Grave Talent” and “To Play The Fool” are my favorite of the Martinelli’s. “To Play The Fool” had me asking myself, over and over…how did she do that? It really is an amazingly constructed book from the basic story to the Fool’s dialogue, which blew me away every time he spoke.


  4. Pat Floyd on January 13, 2010 at 9:52 am

    I think “To Play the Fool” is my favorite Martinelli. The originality of its conception and the excellence of its execution make it outstanding. Brother Erasmus’ ministry with homeless people suggests that a contemporary holy fool, besides speaking the truth to power, would also point to where power is lacking and need is great. I’ve been privileged to know one holy fool, Will Campbell, an ardent promoter of racial equality who could also talk to the Ku Klux Klan.

  5. La Donna on January 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

    The holy fool is one of my husband’s favorite characters — mysteries aren’t his thing but he read “To play the fool” pronounced it good. Praise indeed!!

    Alan Gordon has a (mystery) series about a 13th century fools’ guild where the fools/jesters have a network with which they contrive to influence world politics. Very interesting take on the work of the fool. The first of the books is “Thirteenth Night” — published in 1999.

  6. magpie on January 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I think this is my favorite Martinelli mystery. Brother Erasmus reminds me of the fools in Shakespeare – Feste, Jaques, Touchstone, and of course the Fool in King Lear. I return to this book not only when I need a good read, but when I need somewhere to think about faith. It is comforting to me to know that there’s a historical precedent for challenging church hierarchy with laughter instead of frowns, for being cheerfully subversive while serving the Word of God.

    Thank you, Ms. King, for writing it.

  7. Meredith on January 16, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    A lovely, lovely book. (I have been doing entirely too much work lately and haven’t seen these till now. tsk. terrible use of time) At the Bouchercon in 2009 they had a thing called Continuous Conversation in which 4 writers talked to each other, one leaving every 15 minutes and one arriving every 15 minutes. The audience gets to eavesdrop. It sounds a bit mad but worked out well. Alan Gordon (very nice man) was one of the writers sharing time with Laurie and I went off and looked out the “fool” series on the strength of it. The Conversation idea is to carry on in Bcon 2010. //Meredith

  8. Petal on May 23, 2010 at 7:42 am

    I’d like to know more about the Raven Morningstar case. I’ve been looking around online and am surprised not more questions about it are asked, esp since it comes up in 2 books. I keep feeling I missed a book between “A Grave Talent” and “To Play the Fool”.

    • Laurie King on May 23, 2010 at 8:11 am

      Sorry, Raven Morningstar probably won’t appear any time soon, since clearly it was a case both depressing and unsuccessful. But no, you didn’t miss anything.

  9. […] detection—the answers amount to little more than a shaggy-dog tale. (“Who’s the real fool here?” one might well ask.) Fascinating in their own right, they seem negligible as the […]

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