Mary Russell’s War (seven): My war work

Mary Russell’s journal of the Great War has come to light, beginning on August 4, 1914. This is week seven (For the other weeks, click here.)

Map of SF

Mary Russell’s map, showing the German consulate (X) and Lafayette Park, near the Russell home.

15 September 1914

Last week, Levi circled an article in the news concerning a boy of fourteen years and eleven months who was serving in the German army, and left it on the library table. Father said nothing. Then this morning, the news included mention of Mrs Vanderbilt washing dishes in the scullery of a Paris Red Cross Hospital. A full range of volunteers, except for us.

As for deaths, the casualties roll includes Hons, a viscount, a lord, and the brother of a duke, while Mother has received a third letter concerning the loss of English childhood friends. Closer to home, a dispatch from New Zealand reports no fewer than five German cruisers in the Pacific.  Yet a local company, playing on all these headlines of death and terror, saw fit to compose an advert saying:




Some sales-man no doubt thinks himself most clever.

A letter came from my grandmother in Boston, bemoaning the interruption of fashion out of France (!) and the departure of a good friend for Germany, and included a note to me (on flowered paper) asking if I was wearing my hair up yet, and if so did I wish Granny to buy me some combs for my Christmas present? It pains me to consider that I am related to this person, who has as little sense of the world as Flo’s mother. In the meantime, a woman explorer has discovered a new mountain in Canada, Father enjoyed a baseball game at Ewing field, and the Kaiser has been approached with an exchange of peace terms.

When I complained at dinner last night (admittedly, in a voice of considerable distress) that I felt as if my brain were being torn across like a sheet of paper, Father ordered me to stop reading the news, and Mother suggested I speak with her friend Dr Ginzberg about my distress (Dr Ginzberg, a woman, is a doctor of the mind, not the body). I excused myself early from the table, and took to my room.

I have not even been able to indulge in my long-anticipated escape into the world of Mr Conan Doyle’s fiction, since the two chapters that make up this month’s first episode of the serialisation of The Valley of Fear finds even his two characters at odds. Mr Holmes often expresses affectionate criticisms of his flat-mate’s abilities, but never have I seen him as openly rude as he is in these pages. “Your native shrewdness” and “innate cunning”, Watson’s “Machiavellian intellect”—it is almost as if he desires to drive Watson into moving out. Or into punching him in that long nose. “He was undoubtedly callous from long over-stimulation” is hardly an excuse for a string of outright insults!

And yet, reading the chapters a second time, I find two clues that might have been put there for me alone, valuable clues of “that highest value which anticipates and prevents rather than avenges crime”, along with the reminder that “the temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient date is the bane of our profession.”

Or perhaps three clues, for the episode turns around a complex cipher.

Ciphers are a thing Levi adores.

First, however—“Data! I can’t make bricks without clay!” Or rather, Levi can’t figure a cipher without material.

One: there are without a doubt German spies in San Francisco. Certain things Father has let slip make me believe he would agree.

Two: the city’s blithe preoccupation with baseball games and ladies’ fashion almost certainly has lent a degree of confidence to those spies.

Three: the very last person they would suspect of watching them would be an Irregular—in this case, a girl of fourteen and her nine year-old brother.

Four: The newspapers are full of suggestions, for attentive minds.

This morning at breakfast, Father told Mother that he will be going to see Micah Long (which surprised me, and her, since Father has not been as friendly to Micah as he was when I was a child) and will not be at home until perhaps seven. In one of those instances of one’s mind outpacing one’s thoughts, I spoke up and said that Flo wanted me to help plan her birthday party, but that I too would be home by seven. Inevitably, Mother said it would have to be six, but after pretending to sulk, I agreed.

This means that I am free to wander the city for nearly three hours this afternoon, and that when the offices of the German Consulate on Sansome Street close, those going to their homes will take no notice whatsoever of a young girl on the pavement behind them.

And with Levi’s assistance, I shall be able to come and go freely after dark. A burglar might get caught in a transom or sleeping beneath a bed, but not I.

If only the author of Raffles the Cracksman had thought to provide hints on the opening of safes in his own stories. As it is, I must hope that any spy I locate will be lacking in care, and leave his papers out.


  1. Tricia Mills on September 15, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Around 1970, an an old used book store in Louisville, I found three Raffles hardback books in a loft that had to be reached on a sliding ladder (joy!) Of course I snapped them right up, and they are on my bookshelves to this day. I hope some of your readers seek Raffles and Bunny out, because they enrich the landscape Holmes and Watson inhabit.

  2. Merrily Taylor on September 15, 2014 at 7:56 am

    Of course our Russell would spring into action, with or without the approval of her parents! She’s a handful, that one, but we know that. I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t catch a spy, too..

  3. Laraine on September 15, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Goodness. This is delicious stuff.
    Must. Keep. Reading!

  4. Carina Rodebak on September 18, 2014 at 8:47 am

    I´ve read som of the stories about Raffles and admittedly they are some good reading.
    Still, I prefer Hplmes, rude or not becaus I found Bunny somewhat too thick-headed admiring and whining than Watson.

  5. Pamela Calbeck on September 18, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    I do like the way you capture the attitudes of a 14 year old, even one as intelligent as Mary. She is so impatient of the adults around her that do not think as she does.

  6. MOSpencer on September 19, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Am just loving this series! Edwardian era and the immediate post-war decade have always fascinated me. Women coming into their own socially and politically thrilled me. Grew up in a small town when dozens of strong-minded women were born. Lots of maiden ladies who lost their future-husband pool to WW II, meant they had to live very differently from the world they were born into. They influenced me and many of my friends greatly and I love fiction about them. Brava, Laura and Mary!!

Leave a Comment