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August Book Club Choice

Touchstone by Laurie R King

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A captivating 1920s thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series.

London, 1926. Harris Stuyvesant, agent of the US Bureau of Investigation, is on a mission. A series of bomb attacks on American soil, thought to be enacted by an up-and-coming British politician, have left him with a vendetta more personal than professional. But when his search for answers leads him to government official Aldous Carstairs, the US agent may find himself in over his head.

At Carstairs' recommendation, Stuyvesant enlists the help of Bennett Grey, a man with unique abilities. After the Great War left him with an excruciating sensitivity to human deceit, Grey has withdrawn from the world. Now, however, he must help the American insert himself into the terrorist's rich and radical social circle. Here Stuyvesant uncovers hidden secrets, a horrifying conspiracy, and wonders if he can trust his touchstone, Grey, to reveal the most dangerous player of all...

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Suggested Discussion Points:

Author Q&A

Q. You are best-known of course for your hugely popular and successful Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series and fans will be curious about this new thriller. How would you say Touchstone (and the next Harris Stuyvesant novel The Bones of Paris) differ from the Mary Russell books?

A. The Booklist review of Bones of Paris calls it “…complex, more than a little kinky, and absolutely fascinating”— a description that might be applied to Touchstone as well. Mary Russell, on the other hand, would hardly be described as “kinky” (although, who knows about her private life…) Also, as you say, Touchstone and The Bones of Paris are much more thriller than suspense novel, in pacing and personality, with a big-fisted male protagonist and little pause for Russell’s observations and reflections. Generous touches of humour, though: there is that similarity.

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Q. In Touchstone you write primarily through the view of the detective Harris Stuyvesant. As a writer do you find it harder to write convincingly through a character of the opposite gender to yourself?

A. Less so than I anticipated. My first attempt with the male voice was in 2003’s Keeping Watch, but since more than a few people assumed that “Laurie King” was a Vietnam vet, I’d guess I managed to avoid the more blatant giveaways. I found, however, that it took me a while to shed Russell’s English tones in my mind, and take on Stuyvesant’s Yankee swagger.

Q. Who was your favourite character to create and write about in Touchstone and why?

A. There were great bits to all the characters, from the villainous Carstairs to the absent-minded Duke, but I’ll admit I have a real place in my heart for Bennett Grey himself. As a novelist, I’m always interested in how even the most profoundly damaged people can rebuild their lives — not by refusing to acknowledge the damage, but by embracing it. That is the very essence of heroism.

Q. The idea of a ‘human touchstone’ is fascinating. What inspired you to come up with it?

A. It contains several overlapping ideas: PTSD, of course—the permanent changes in the brain inflicted by mental trauma—along with the intense focus and sensory overload experienced by the autistic mind. And as I was working on the book, I came across Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, with its anecdotes of experts who knew something even if they couldn’t immediately analyze why. In metallurgy, a touchstone is a test for gold; a human touchstone would be one against whom life rubs, leaving behind a deciding mark.

Q. The issues surrounding the post-war era and the 1920s class system seem to touch on more contemporary issues too. Was this purposeful or inadvertent? Do you think it is impossible to separate the past and the present?

A. Touchstone’s parallel of past and present was not only deliberate, it is central to the entire genre of historical fiction. The past is dead, until it illuminates the present. A story finished in bygone days is only interesting if it shows us a mirror. Touchstone is my 9/11 book, my own wrestlings with the question, Why terrorism? What could possibly drive an apparently rational individual to believe that overt and anonymous violence is the answer to anything? By looking at this question in 1926, beginning to end, it may suggest some answers in this millennium, as well.

Q. Did you have to do a lot of research to write so fluently about the political state of the turbulent 1920s in both America and England?

A. I’m what might be called a “recovering academic.” Research is a compulsion—although it’s a blessing not to have to footnote novels! Ideally in historical fiction, you want to give the reader an impression of casual expertise: you don’t want the novel read like a list of fastened-together note-cards. So yes, I immerse myself in all sorts of elements related to the time and place. For example, when working up to The Bones of Paris I read biographies of various Montparnasse writers and artists, several histories of Paris, a couple of old guide-books, collected letters from travellers and residents, articles on the workings of antique clocks and the arcades of Paris and — more odds and ends than even I want to think about. Then when I finish, I use a tiny percentage of what I’ve read, and try to forget that it came from books.

Q. When writing Touchstone, was it difficult to switch between two very different worlds - one of privilege and the other of absolute poverty?

A. Writing extremes is not the hard part; it’s the links between the two that are tricky. Just as a pure-evil bad guy is easier to write than an ambiguously wicked antagonist who yet has heroic elements, so is it easier to describe the rich on that side and the poor over here than it is to create a realistic character who is comfortable in both worlds. Happily enough, there are real-life role models for this: wealthy individuals who reach out to the poor, people in power who use that authority for the betterment of the less fortunate. Sometimes we writers cheat, and draw from real life.

Q. Bennett Grey has withdrawn from the world, retreating to rural Cornwall, whereas Harris Stuyvesant begins his journey in London. Do you personally prefer cities or the countryside?

A. Oh, country all the way — I tend to walk through cities with my shoulders drawn up around my ears. But oddly enough, I enjoy London. The way one can still feel the villages that were swallowed up in the city fascinates me.

Q. Touchstone was initially written as a standalone novel. What inspired you to want to work with the characters again, in the upcoming novel The Bones of Paris?

A. Things were unfinished with the characters (no, I’m not going to give spoiler-details.) And although in my first draft of Touchstone I killed off pretty much everyone, by the time I had worked my way through the rewrites, I found that, as so often, less is more: a lower body count actually intensified the effect I was aiming at. To my surprise, I then had enough of a cast left standing that I could build another book around them. Or a few of them, anyway. And that made me so happy, because these are some characters I would love to spend a lot of time with. In 1926 London, or 1929 Paris, or… Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?


Book Club Reviews

This star review was by Pippa Watts of West Sussex.

An explosive start for a new series. I adore the Mary Russell series and was happy to try something new by Laurie, she didn't disappoint. From the start I was drawn into Harris' investigation and his growing friendship with Bennett Grey. The different twists and subplots kept me engrossed so much I never saw the ending coming! An absolutely must for all crime lovers, I can't wait for more.Pippa Watts, West Sussex

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