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Thursday, July 17, 2014

'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #1 by Laurie R. King

From the BLURB:

1915. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honey bees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs. Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, Mary Russell displays an intellect to impress even Sherlock Holmes – and match him wit for wit.

Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protégée and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective. In their first case together, they must track down a kidnapped American senator’s daughter and confront a truly cunning adversary – a bomber who has set trip-wires for the sleuths and who will stop at nothing to end their partnership.

Author Laurie R. King has been sent a most curious trunk. Inside there are bits and bobs of various wealth and randomness. But most curious of all are the manuscripts within – a running memoir, if you will – featuring one of literature’s most famous characters as if he were once a living, breathing real person. King does not know who sent her the trunk, and if anyone should know more about the author Mary Russell she would welcome any information. But in the meantime here are Russell’s stories, just as she wrote them (albeit, with grammar and spelling corrected).

Mary Russell’s first book is ‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice: or, 'On the Segregation of the Queen’, published in 1994 and first in the ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series, which currently has 12 books with a 13th due for 2015 release.

‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice’ covers Mary Russell’s first meeting of Sherlock Holmes, on the Sussex Downs in 1915 when she is fifteen and Holmes 54-years-old, and all but retired from his days as London’s greatest detective. Of course Mary figures out who he is, after all he has become somewhat renowned since Watson’s stories appeared in ‘The Strand’ (as written by Conan Doyle), but Mary quickly discovers that the Holmes of the stories is quite different from the sickly man she meets on the Downs … indeed, over time and through these memoirs, we will discover that Holmes’s story did not end with Watson and Doyle’s retellings, and much has been misinterpreted or forgotten over time.

Now the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.

In ‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice’, Mary details her apprenticeship under Holmes at a time when she desperately needed family. Her mother, father and younger brother had died in a tragic car accident a year before, and Mary had come to Sussex to live with her only guardian left, a horrid aunt whose name does not bear repeating. When she meets Holmes she gains in him a teacher and father-figure (though this will be complicated and dispelled in good time), she also gains a mother in Mrs Hudson and dear friend in ‘Uncle’ John Watson.

So accomplished is Mary (a proud, self-proclaimed feminist and land girl during the war) that Holmes does indeed see her as his equal and budding apprentice, and draws her into a complicated case concerning the kidnapped daughter of an American diplomat.

‘You don’t sound pleased.’ 
He slammed down a pipette, which of course shattered. 
‘How could I be pleased? Half of Wales has trudged the hillside into mud, the trail is a week old, there are no prints, nobody saw anyone, the parents are hysterical, and since nobody has any idea of what to do, they decide to humour the woman and bring in old Holmes. Old Holmes the miracle worker.’ He stared sourly at his fingers as I fastened plaster to it.
‘Reading that drivel of Watson’s, a person would never know I’d had any real failures, the kind that grind away and keep one from sleeping. Russell, I know these cases, I know the feel of how they begin, and this has all the marks. It stinks of failure, and I don’t want to be anywhere near Wales when they find that child’s body.’

I completely stumbled across the ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series, but now that I’ve gotten stuck into it I really don’t know how I ever missed them. This series has been around since 1994, to high critical acclaim and quite a fandom. But I had never heard of them before I went searching for reading recommendations for a new ‘cosy’ mystery series.

Laurie R. King has indeed written a very clever and entirely original tribute to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Artfully positioned as the mere conduit to Mary Russell’s message (the story of King receiving a trunk with Mary’s memoirs is particularly sweet) she presents Mary Russell as Sherlock Holmes’s continued story – perhaps a truer story than Watson’s saccharine ‘Strand’ entries – and reveals a man with a far darker psyche and complex history than literary classics would have us believe.

But don’t be fooled – while Holmes does feature heavily, the real pivot-point is Mary herself. A true product of changing times, she is a proud feminist and half-Jewish student of Oxford who is studying theology and chemistry (one, to Sherlock’s great distaste). Already a sharp mind when she meets him, working with Sherlock hones her already considerable skills and helps turn her into the formidable force she way always destined to be.

After just one chapter of ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’ I was excited to have found a new, long-running series to get stuck into. Indeed, I am over-the-moon at the prospect of 12 books (with a 13th due in 2015) for me to hoe through. Even more so, since – and it’s impossible not to know this, when the fandom is so strong – Mary does become Holmes’s wife (this is hinted at throughout, as Mary is writing her memoirs from quite a distance in the future, when she is 80 odd years old and reflecting on their life together). At first I thought this would be a jarring realisation, when we meet Mary at age 15 through to 17 in this first book and when she and Holmes have such a platonic, mentoring relationship … but it becomes clear that these two are so well-suited, nobody else could have possibly been a match for Holmes. I look forward to reading the development of their romantic relationship and beyond (though I do say ‘romantic’ lightly, as Mary Russell is a discreet lady from a certain era and will no doubt refrain from delving into overtly personal details).

This is also a fabulous series for Conan Doyle-aficionados (which I cannot claim to be). You’ll find that King refers to many of Holmes’s greatest adventures (with new perspectives in the telling) and famous characters from history and Conan Doyle’s literature do feature. I also have no doubt that King has quite captured the spirit of Conan Doyle’s original work, even while twisting it cleverly and remarkably toward a far more feminist, modernist bent.

I have fallen in love with this series and while I’m slightly peeved that I didn’t discover it sooner, I’m now quite chuffed that I have such a large backlist to get acquainted with.


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