The Mystery Writers of America announced that they have chosen Laurie R. King to be their 2022 Grand Master at this year’s conference. The awards she’s won, how her novels have influenced the crime fiction canon, and her writing longevity, all together make her a fitting recipient.
Laurie R. King was born in 1952 in Oakland, California. On her website, she said she was the third generation in her family native to the San Francisco area. Her family moved so much as she was growing up that it wasn’t until she was in high school that she attended the same school in consecutive years.
In an interview for Mystery Scene in 2009, she said, “That, if nothing else, turned me into a reader, which turned me into a writer.” On her website, she said she read through libraries up and down the west coast.
In 1977, she earned a BA in comparative religion, then a Master’s in Theology in 1984.
Also in 1977, King married Noel King. Born in India, his family was Anglo-Indians. Ordained into the Anglican Church, Noel taught comparative religion at the University of California, where he met Laurie.
She now lives in the California’s Monterey Bay area and has a home in Oxford.
The Beginning of King’s Career
The Kings had a daughter three years into their marriage. Then, three years later, they had a boy. Laurie said in her autobiography, it surprised her to learn that she enjoyed being a mother. Previously, she had never cared for other’s children. But she found hers to be fascinating and intensely amusing. For 15 years, they lived in an 80-year-old farmhouse on two acres of land in Pajaro Valley, California.
In 1987, with the youngest away in third grade, she sat at the kitchen table and wrote, in longhand, the opening of what became The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Although she hadn’t been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, she had been watching the series on BBC. King has described Mary Russell, the protagonist of what has become her most popular series, as what Sherlock Holmes would have looked like if the Victorian detective had been a woman, of the twentieth century, and interested in theology.
She wrote two books about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, but she couldn’t get a publisher to show any interest. So, for her third book, she changed the setting from 19th century England to late 20th century San Francisco. Her protagonist was Kate Martinelli, a police detective who was a lesbian.
When asked about writing about a lesbian woman, King told Mystery Scene Magazine in their 2009 article, “It never occurred to me that [Kate’s orientation} was unusual or that I couldn’t or shouldn’t write about it just because I was a straight woman or that I might not understand the gay community. I had just written about a Victorian male detective, and I wasn’t part of that community either.”
The book became A Grave Talent, her first book to sell and was published in January 1993. It went on to win an Edgar for debut novel and the John Creasey Memorial Award given by the British Crime Writer’s Association. In 1994, Mary Russell made her publishing debut with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Since 1993, she has averaged at least a book a year, alternating between Mary Russell, Kate Martinelli, and her standalone novels.
The Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Mysteries
Mary Russell is a fictional character who has left King her memoirs she wrote in her later years. The stories begins when she was age 15, and she meets her a man in his mid-fifties who keeps bees as a hobby. She comes to realize that he is the famous, retired detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes remains throughout the series as a secondary, albeit important, character. He first begins as Russell’s mentor, but then they become partners and husband and wife.
Laurie R. King said, “I do not write Sherlock Holmes stories, I write Mary Russell stories.”
The stories stretch over twenty years, between 1915 and the late 1920s. In the stories, she explores important cultural issues such as the root of conflict in the Middle East, feminism and early Christianity, and patriotism and individual responsibility—“while having a rousing good time.” Some of the stories revisit The Hound of Baskerville and Kipling’s Kim. All this while she brings an unlikely relationship between two remarkably similar individuals who happen to be separated by age, sex, and background.
At first, many Sherlockian fans were reluctant to accept her books. They were afraid it was just a romantic pastiche. But then they saw that she took the Holmesian canon seriously with affection and respect. She got the ultimate compliment when she was invited to join The Baker Street Irregulars, an organization of Sherlock Holmes’s enthusiasts.
King says that the first duty of fiction is to entertain. But it also offers the chance to show the reader different cultures and different world views. “You want to undermine people’s presumptions and let them see things in a different way. If I can do that, and also entertain, I feel I have done my job.”
But it is important to make any issue a part of the story, not the main aspect of it. In other words, an author shouldn’t let an agenda overwhelm their story.
“I don’t feel the need for the smell of soap in a novel. I don’t like the idea of a novel as a soap box.”
She also said, “I like the idea of being thought-provoking and being a great read. I don’t feel the two are exclusive. You can have passion without as authoritative attitude.”
In an interview on Broad and High YouTube series, King talks about her writing process.
She said she does most of her thinking in the first draft. She doesn’t plot out the story. When she rewrites, she shapes the story from the novel in her head to one others can make sense of.
I think that is a great explanation of the revision process.Visit my blog @OpeningaMystery to learn a little more about Laurie R. King, 2022 MWA Grand Master. @TimSuddeth #mysteries Click To Tweet
This year, the Mystery Writers of America chose Laurie R. King as their 2022 Grand Master. The award represents the apex of achievement in mystery writing. She has written over 30 novels and has been a member of the MWA since 1993. She has served on the NorCal and national boards. Other recipients begin with Agatha Christie and include Ross MacDonald, Ngaio Marsh, Jeffery Deaver, Sue Grafton, Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, et al.
Several of King’s novels have been used in schools. A number of classes about Sherlock Holmes use The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Folly, one of her stand-alones, has been used in psychological classes to illustrate depression.
“An innate love of language and storytelling may lay a foundation, but opportunity, a breadth of experience, and above all a stiff-necked refusal to bend to the voice of harsh reality, are essential.
“I love my job. Never would I have believed, when I was a dreamy child, that one day I would be paid to tell myself stories.”
Thank you, Mrs. King, for sharing those stories with us.