Mary Russell is at home on winter break from the College where she teaches, looking forward to being alone for a while when Sherlock's brother Mycroft shows up to ask her for her help. Mary is reluctant because she doesn't trust Mycroft in any way, shape or form- she views him as sly and manipulative, and to be honest, he is, seeing as he works for the secret hand of the Government in England.
She asks him why he doesn't want Sherlock to investigate, but Mycroft insists that it must be her- it seems that Randolph Fflyte, the king of London Cinema, is setting out to make another picture. This would be fine- Fflyte films are always gripping and realistic. The only problem is what happens afterwards. One of his films was about gun running, and after the film premiere, smuggled guns somehow began to appear on the English Market. Another film was about drugs and drug addiction. And, again, after the film was shown in England, amounts of drugs were sold in England that didn't come from anything like normal drug channels.
And now Fflyte is making a new film, supposedly a film within a film about Piracy, based off the Pirates of Penzance. Given what happened the last time Fflyte made a film, Mycroft wants to make sure that Fflyte isn't somehow importing crime to England. Mary reluctantly agrees to help, since Fflyte's last secretary left him (thanks to a little "help" from Mycroft), and now he desperately needs a woman who can type and use the telephone, something Mary well knows how to do. Since all of Mycroft's people are male (or engaged elsewhere) he needs Mary to act as secretary and spy, investigating what really goes on during the making of one of Fflyte's films.
Mary, hiding her light under a bushel and dressing in plain but simple clothing (and comfortable, sensible shoes) takes herself off to London to apply for the job. She's so needed that once she's proved she can type and use the phone, she is pretty much hired on the spot and thrown into the deep end, making sure Fflyte has what he needs before he heads for Majorca, Spain, along with his cast- thirteen blue-eyed and blonde-haired actresses to play the part of the daughters of the Major-General, along with those who will play Frederick and some of the Policemen. Also accompanying the girls are their mothers, most of whom are show business mothers who want their girls to be pre-eminent in the production and keep Mary running to keep them and their daughters satisfied and also to keep up with some of the nasty-minded pranks the girls play on each other.
Things go from bad to worse once they arrive in Majorca. Although he finds plenty of places to shoot in Portugal, Fflyte decides that he wants to shoot the shipboard scenes on a real ship and buys the least seaworthy vessel Mary has ever seen to do his work on. Although Mary puts together a boatwright to get the ship shipshape, he then hires the most disreputable looking crew as "actors" to play the noble pirates. In fact, Mary is pretty sure that these men are all real criminals, but she can't convince Fflyte, or his director, to moderate their course now that the bit is in their mouth, so to speak. Add to that a Portuguese translator who seems to possess multiple personalities and who writes truly execrable poetry and who also seems welded to Fflyte's side and to that of the "Pirate King", being played by the head of the band of bad men who he hired in Portugal.
As the entire party takes to the waters of the Mediterranean, headed for Morocco, the true nature of the men comes out, and the worse heads into the truly hellish as Fflyte's hired "actors" take the director and the true actors and actresses, prisoner. Only one actress, who has fallen in love with the true son of the man who played at being "Pirate King" might be able to fight his father and save them. But where is Holmes, and can Mary Russell use the supposed helplessness of the actresses and their mothers to cause herself to be underestimated and find a way to save them all? And can true life ever imitate the stage play of the Pirates of Penzance, a comedy that also poked fun at the romantic stageplays of the time as well as various kinds of music? And can Mary pull off a save in the midst of a foreign land, while immured in a literal prison?
I love the Mary Russell books, and this one was one of the best premises of all, an idea that evoked a great sense of fun. because Mary can be such a stodgy stick in the mud herself- her sense of humor seems to parallel that of her Husband, Sherlock Holmes, who isn't exactly the most lighthearted of men. And while Mary is also the most sensible one in a crew and cast littered with layabouts and people who have been almost entirely inured from real life by their stardom, it was funny to see her having to spend time with people that, in other circumstances, she'd wash her hands of and leave because of their absolute stupidity.
At the same time, she has our sympathy, so while you are laughing at her a bit, you also understand why she finds the circumstances she finds herself in so frustrating. Trying to keep a temperamental director and film impresario from indulging in flights of fancy that add time and complications to an already time-consuming and complicated process can be a real drag. But the parallels between the story as written and the play of the Pirates of Penzance was also funny. Yet, it only added to the horror of what was happening to the relative Naifs of the actors and show business people, who are totally in water over their heads once the business heads south, and their pirate actors turn out to be real pirates in the worst way, who want to hold them for ransom, and rather more in the case of some of the actresses.
And yet, Mary holds up remarkably well. All alone with only herself to rely on (and when Sherlock shows up later, he is unable to save things once they have headed into the crapper- they manage to bring everyone out successfully, and Mary has already found out who is behind the hinkiness with the subjects of Fflyte films suddenly becoming a problem in England. Although that is the reason why Mary has been sent on this job, it's not the main problem that she has to solve. And by the end of the book, she even learns to be a bit more playful and humorous and not such a stick in the mud. She may be married to an old man, and even a very famous old man, but she doesn't have to become completely like him.
I liked this book and found myself laughing aloud several times during reading it. I felt that Mary learned something by going on this case alone, and it actually improved her personality and her character. She's a strong character in her own right, and it was nice to see her being able to shine, alone, when separated from her extremely famous husband. I loved this book and would read it again, and more in this series, any time. Highly recommended.