Exotic Settings

(Added note:for a few days, Dreaming Spies will be $2.99 on Nook and Kindle. in the US.)

I always find it interesting to look back at a book I’ve written and reflect on what it turned out to be about, and how it fits into the rest of the series.

While I’m actually writing the things, I’m far too focused on the story—making the plot work and teasing the characters into life—to think much about the larger picture. Then during the editing (Riviera Gold is currently in copyedit, no doubt receiving lots of small tweaks and queries) it’s again a matter of zeroing in on that story and making everything about it… more.

Only after it’s finished—sometimes long after—do I step back and notice links and themes, and how the books fit together in ways that (ahem) readers think I’ve done deliberately.

Such as setting.

Take three of the books set in exotic climes.  The Game started because I wanted to tell a story about India, where my husband had been born and raised.  I’ve spent some time there, and I tried to make the book reflect the flavor of country: strong colors, vivid events, a historical pull between the Indian people and the British raj that, in the 1920s, was beginning to come to the fore. The climate and the food are hot; the streets and the inhabitants are noisy and busy and bright; the place is a sensory overload.

Then there’s Dreaming Spies.  Several books intervened before it came along, but the story begins just as Russell and Holmes are leaving India, bound for Japan.  Dreaming Spies—the half that is set in Japan—was shaped around a hugely different society from India’s.  Intricate subtlety is the hallmark here, and although its social order is also on the brink of vast changes triggered by a relationship with the West, in Japan the moves are tight and deliberate, as the streets are quiet, the colors subdued, and the flavors of foods elusive on the tongue.  Russell found India overwhelming, but she finds Japan baffling, and suspects that deeper meaning lies just outside her perception.   The plot here is filled with layers, felt more than seen.  And when the case later follows Russell to home ground in Oxford, it still takes her a long time to see what is actually going on beneath the surface.

Island of the Mad is also set in two places—England and Venice—but it takes its flavor-notes from Venice.  Warm, friendly, welcoming to anyone with a full wallet, familiar to half the world…and at the same time, full of secret neighborhoods and invisible power-plays.  Like a cheerful public figure secretly going mad…  And that dichotomy permeates the book, where splashy rich Americans unknowingly rub shoulders with brutal Blackshirts, and the craziness of the Twenties touches the desperate madness of trapped women.

Riviera Gold takes place not too far from Island of the Mad—Russell takes a leisurely three week sail around the boot of Italy to the south of France.  1925 finds the Riviera just beginning its shift from winter resort to year-around home for the artistic set, and the thirty miles of coastline that Russell explores here runs the gamut from sun-baked beach picnics with children in the waves, to a dark confrontation with crime and world control.

So: upon reflection, I see a pattern.  Settings, for me, determine the flavor of the book—in all of them, but especially in those like The Game, Dreaming Spies, Island of the Mad—and soon, Riviera Gold.  Exotic places, with problems that are all too universal.  I’ll be posting various things about the four books over the next couple of weeks, and I just wanted you to know what is on my mind as I wait for the copyedit to hit my desk, and I reflect on the place of Riviera Gold among the Russell memoirs.

[Excerpts, discussion guides, buy links, and fun extras can be found on the book pages for The Game, Dreaming Spies, Island of the Mad, and Riviera Gold.]


  1. Chris on January 13, 2020 at 3:02 pm

    Lovely insights and no coincidence that these are amongst my favourites in the series. Bodes well for Riviera Gold (and look forward to seeing the A&B cover, too!)

  2. Roger Pavelle on January 13, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    You forgot to include “O Jerusalem”. That one certainly fits the same pattern.

    • Mary on January 14, 2020 at 2:20 am

      Yes! Somehow, above, I replied to the wrong comment. This is what I had meant to echo. Not that I don’t enjoy the others, but that this one had a very strong sense of place.

      • Laurie King on January 14, 2020 at 11:55 am


        • Denise on February 17, 2020 at 11:16 pm

          I just returned from Israel (literally yesterday) and found myself retracing the footsteps on Mary Russell, even wading through the waters of Hezekiah’s tunnel. O’ Jerusalem was for me, you best written book (so far).

          • Laurie King on February 18, 2020 at 5:03 pm

            Yay, I’m glad you could explore!

      • Katy on January 17, 2020 at 4:42 am

        I’ve been re-reading all the series in the last few weeks (staying up way too late to do so!). O Jerusalem has to be my favourite. The setting, the characters, the historical references. . . The book is an education alongside being a delight to read.

  3. Mary Freeman on January 13, 2020 at 9:35 pm

    I would love to read a book about Goodman and Estelle being reunited. Any plans?

    • Laurie King on January 13, 2020 at 10:12 pm

      Not at present, but one never knows.

  4. Chere Harper on January 14, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Picking a favorite is beyond me but Island of the Mad hit the right notes. The descriptions are so spot on I could re-walk the streets in memory a decade after we moved away. I checked those perceptions on a visit last fall to prove it to myself, and considered getting a scarf at that same store. Ah, my collection is quite full enough.

    • Laurie King on January 14, 2020 at 11:54 am

      …and this winter I’m guessing all their stock got wet with the floods. Poor Venice.

      • Chere on February 15, 2020 at 12:56 pm

        The ladies going around in tall rubber boots- no 4+ inch heels on those- looked so despondent. Some of the Alta Acqua platforms are permanent we’re told! And the campanile are leaning at alarming angles.

        • Laurie King on February 16, 2020 at 6:41 pm

          I didn’t hear that they’d made some of them permanent, but I suppose it makes sense. Poor Venice!

  5. Josephine on January 14, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    I have relistened to the audiobooks so many times I’ve lost count so I have indeed noticed many links and themes recurring throughout the novels. One however that is curiously inconsistent is the insistence in some of the books that Mary is tone deaf and yet in The Moor, for instance, she happily picks up a tin whistle and plays it like a pro.

    • Laurie King on January 14, 2020 at 3:53 pm

      Perhaps because a tin whistle is like a tin ear, not exactly melodic, but capable of being memorized…

      • Janet Germany on January 30, 2020 at 11:00 am

        I would fear that being tone deaf would impair her ability to distinguish the subtlety of voices and accents…

        • Laurie King on February 16, 2020 at 6:43 pm

          You may be right, though I imagine Russell would find some way around it…

  6. Sally Trapnell Warthen on January 14, 2020 at 11:01 pm

    What about Garment of Shadows–my favorite of your exotic settings?

    • Laurie King on January 14, 2020 at 11:03 pm

      Yes indeed, and I do plan to talk about that book later in the spring….


  7. Debby Zigenis-Lowery on January 15, 2020 at 9:41 am

    I love this comment from the beginning:
    “Only after it’s finished—sometimes long after—do I step back and notice links and themes, and how the books fit together in ways that (ahem) readers think I’ve done deliberately.”
    It reminds me of a scene from E.L. Konigsburg’s A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER, in which Shakespeare is overwhelmed in eternity by fans and scholars telling him what he meant in his plays.
    As a writer, this has always been a comfort for me. Yes, my novels have themes and symbolism, but I am glad I do not have to plan a deep inner meaning for every roast boar that is served for dinner or every time marigold salve used to soothe a wound.

  8. Kate on January 15, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Just re-reading Island of the Mad now and cannot wait for Riviera Gold!

  9. Ann Speicher on January 21, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Ms. King: Will you get back to the response from Holmes of Mary “stealing’ the picture of his mother as a wedding present? I don’t remember seeing anything about that–it seems to have been left hanging… Thanks for a fun, wonderfully written series!

    • Laurie King on January 21, 2020 at 11:35 am

      Hmm, one of those small details that’s entirely slipped my mind. I shall look into it, and mull over the possibilities…

  10. Carl Utley on January 26, 2020 at 7:38 am

    Ms. King, my work requires frequent regional travel in central Virginia. Mary Russel accompanies me through audio books, and I continue to thank my friend who introduced me to your novels. I look forward to my drives, especially when I know I’ll have two hours in a given stretch. I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe how grateful I am for the pleasure you contribute to your readers, and to me personally. I will be with Mary in Lisbon later this morning.


    • Laurie King on January 26, 2020 at 12:12 pm

      Funnily enough, I just had another note about Pirate King, clearly there’s something Piratic in the air…

      Enjoy Lisboa, and Pessoa, and Gilbert & Sullivan!


Leave a Comment