The Beekeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R King

>> Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TITLE: The Beekeper's Apprentice (or On The Segregation Of The Queen)
AUTHOR: Laurie R King

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 1910s England (mostly)
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts the Russell and Holmes series

Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes' pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.

The start of The Beekeeper's Apprentice put me in mind of some of the later entries in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. A tongue-in-cheek author's note describes how King came upon this manuscript, and scoffs at the idea that even such an imagination as hers could have come up with "the farfetched idea of Sherlock Holmes taking on a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen-year-old sidekick."

The smart-mouthed, half-American fifteen-year-old in question is Mary Russell. Mary's parents have died recently in America, and she's come to live with an aunt in the Sussex Downs. The aunt is mostly interested in the money that comes with Mary's large inheritance, so the girl spends most of her time wandering the Downs, her nose in a book. Her nose is in a book when she literally walks into Sherlock Holmes.

It's 1915 and Holmes has retired to the country, leaving behind the (somewhat exaggerated) exploits narrated in very popular books by his friend, Dr. Watson. He's sinking into depression, spending all his time on his beekeeping. All that changes the day when Mary Russell walks over him as he's lying on the ground, observing bees. Her brilliant deductions show him that she's in possession of a brain at least as good as his. Before he knows it, he's taken her under his wing and is teaching her all he knows.

Many years ago, I read and enjoyed A Letter of Mary, which is the third book in this series. Normally, I'd have gone straight to the beginning of the series, but when I found out Mary is 15 at the start of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, that really put me off. See, Mary and Holmes are a married couple in A Letter of Mary, so I knew there would be a romantic relationship. And even though I loved their relationship in that book and thought that, in spite of a really large age difference, there was a wonderful equality in it, the idea of a 15-year-old girl and a man in his 50s kind of skeeves me out.

Well, I needn't have worried. King develops the relationship between Russell and Holmes slowly and carefully, and over several years. Initially, it's a relationship with no sexual component whatever. You realise these two come to care for each other, but the romantic element comes late. Even better, I didn't get the feeling that Holmes was moulding Russell's mind, Pygmalion-style. He does teach her a lot, but doesn't change who she is. Even from the start, their relationship felt more like one between partners than one between student and teacher. So, I'm happy to say, no creepiness there at all.

Something else that might have been a pitfall is that King, obviously, is taking someone else's character and continuing the story. As someone who has read and enjoyed all the original stories, I was curious to see whether I'd recognise her Sherlock Holmes as the same man Conan Doyle created. I haven't had the best of experiences with tricks like that (see Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death). And again, King cleared the hurdle with room to spare. This was Sherlock Holmes. In fact (dare I say it?) it was a Sherlock Holmes who was the same man, but with even more depths. Watson was also Watson with depth, and the same goes for Mrs. Hudson.

And as for Mary Russell, she is a wonderful creation. She's a highly intelligent and logical, almost cold young woman. I loved it that King didn't feel she had to soften her or make her behave in irrational ways to make her more acceptable as a heroine. It's made very clear that Russell has feelings and cares about (some) people, but she does so in her own way, without sentiment of mawkishness. The exact thing can be said about Holmes, and I found myself convinced they were soulmates. It's a relationship that's about the meeting of two like minds, and though the bodies they're in are attracted to each other, that's not as important.

The structure of the plot is quite interesting. At first, it sort of echoes how most of Sherlock Holmes' appearances take place in short stories. Mary learns the detective trade through different unconnected cases. At least, it seems that they're all unconnected to anything. But then a villain shows up who clearly has an axe to grind against Holmes, and some of that might have to be reconsidered. All these are interesting cases, peopled by interesting characters, and provide opportunities for some of those excellent, satisfying deductions one associates with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

I also thought the writing was excellent. I started listening to this one after the hugely unsatisfying and frustrating The Silent Touch of Shadows. I'd been forcing myself to keep listening, until I got pissed off and just deleted it. And then I started The Beekeeper's Apprentice and felt the difference immediately. King is an elegant writer, and an author who trusts her readers' intelligence, and therefore doesn't feel the need to spell everything out. You have to pay attention, but it's most definitely worth it.

MY GRADE: It was an A-.


Angiegirl 15 May 2013 at 03:35  

I'm so glad this one worked for you, Rosario. And I love the point that you make that King trusts the intelligence of her readers. That is exactly why I love this series.

Barb in Maryland 15 May 2013 at 21:42  

I just love, love, love this series. I was lucky enough to read this when it first came out, so I was spared the 'squick' possibilities. Their romance, as it developed over the early books, seemed a natural progression.
Some entries, of course, are stronger than others. But the whole series is worth investing the time.
Several years ago I attended an author event with Laurie King, wherein she admitted that she had no problem with the age gap between Holmes and Russell, as she was 30 years younger than her husband.

Rosario 16 May 2013 at 07:29  

Angiegirl: I love authors who do this. You need to pay attention, so they're not authors for when you just want a bit of mindless fun, but very satisfying.

Barb: I wish that had been the case for me, as well! Although I think I'll enjoy the books now that I'm a bit older. Hah, that's interesting to know about King, but I still wonder why she chose to make Russell so young at the start of the book.

Susan/DC,  17 May 2013 at 18:18  

I've very much enjoyed this series, especially the character of Mary Russell. I happened to be in London a few years ago when Laurie King spoke at one of the public libraries so I took the opportunity to hear her. She is a very engaging speaker and quite forthcoming about the choices she's made in this series, including the age difference. Frankly it still squicks me out, so I view Russell and Holmes as soul mates but somehow sexless. Not many books are worth the extra mental energy it takes to ignore an aspect one doesn't care for, but these are.

Rosario 18 May 2013 at 12:30  

Susan/DC: It will be interesting to read the next book and see them interact more as a couple. It might be that the reason I was completely not squicked out here was that they practically don't interact that way. But yeah, I can see it being good enough that I'd be willing to just look past it!

Marianne McA,  23 May 2013 at 15:28  

I love the series, although I haven't got to the last couple of books yet.
Random suggestion of the day - much later in the series, she uses the character of 'Kim' from Kipling's book (which I'd never read) and as I hate missing references I dropped 'The Game' and read 'Kim' first. My suggestion is that, if you haven't read the Kipling, you do not do as I did, because the setting of 'Kim' was so vivid, it completely outshone King's book.
I'd try and read 'Kim' well in advance of the other.

Rosario 24 May 2013 at 06:45  

Marianne McA: Thanks! I haven't read Kim, so that's an excellent suggestion. I've a spare audible credit which will do the trick :)

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