Author Laurie King’s many readers will be delighted to learn that her character Mary Russell, known to mystery fans as the wife of famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes and a detective in her own right, is off on a new adventure.

The play’s the thing—or in this case a moving picture—and a film within a film forms the imaginative backdrop in Pirate King, a wild and woolly tale that plays artfully with the confusion between reality and make-believe.

Chief Inspector Lestrade of the Home Office asks Russell to go undercover and look into the disappearance of a young production assistant from the movie set of a film of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. She is to investigate a possible connection between the Fflytte Films Company and a lively trade in drugs and firearms that seems to follow on the heels of many of the company’s productions. Hired as a replacement for the missing assistant, Russell finds herself knee-deep in a world of cinematic sets and crackpot characters who are making believe they’re real. This witty and comic foray into the silent silver screen of a bygone era has the normally elegant Russell expending a lot of energy—and patience—in the midst of a cockeyed world: a film about a film about the operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

Russell, who’s neither a tunesmith nor a fan of operetta, finds herself more alarmed at being in the vicinity of a D’Oyly Carte production “than by the thought of climbing storm-tossed rigging in the company of cut-throats.”  Film director Randolph Fflytte, however, has a taste for “realism,” and cast and crew shuttle from stem to stern on a weary-looking brigantine in this high seas comic adventure. It’s one thing to have actors acting as pirates, but to enlist real pirates to play pirates in a play? It’s a recipe for misadventure in true Keystone Kops fashion, as Russell is soon to discover. 

She’s up to her neck in kidnapping, cutlasses, topmast stays’ls and port deadeyes, and way too far up in the rigging for her own taste. There’s also the Pirate King himself to contend with, decked out in ostrich plumes, with a parrot that spouts English lyric poetry. And Holmes himself appears, in a hilarious overboard (literally) scene. Undaunted, Ms. Russell—armed with weapons of her own—manages to scale the barricades and quell the uprising, to the satisfaction of all hands.

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