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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

‘A Letter of Mary’ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #3 by Laurie R. King

From the BLURB:

It is 1923. Mary Russell Holmes and her husband, the retired Sherlock Holmes, are enjoying the summer together on their Sussex estate when they are visited by an old friend, Miss Dorothy Ruskin, an archeologist just returned from Palestine. She leaves in their protection an ancient manuscript which seems to hint at the possibility that Mary Magdalene was an apostle - an artifact certain to stir up a storm of biblical proportions in the Christian establishment.

When Ruskin is suddenly killed in a tragic accident, Russell and Holmes find themselves on the trail of a fiendishly clever murderer. This next installment is brimming with political intrigue, theological arcana, and brilliant Holmesian deductions.

Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes are happily ensconced in their Sussex countryside home. Well, maybe ‘happily’ isn’t quite the right word. Mary has graduated from Oxford and is writing a theological book, while Holmes prowls their little house like a bad-tempered cat. Some days he inhales the London papers, others he’s a bit too calculated in his refusal to keep updated on the goings on of his old city. Mary knows he’s hungry for a new case, but she’s reluctant to admit her own itch for a bit of adventure…

Then adventure – and danger – come looking for them in the form of Dorothy Ruskin, an old friend Russell and Holmes met during a trip to Palestine. Miss Ruskin is visiting family in England, leaving behind her archeological expedition and making a detour to the Holmes residence to show Mary in particular, something that might change the face of Christianity forever.

Ruskin has a papyrus scroll that was gifted to her, and she believes it’s a letter from Mary Magdalene that suggests she was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
This is quite an explosive find – and Ruskin is keen for Mary to study the papyrus and do with it what she will. But before Mary can make any decisions, news reaches her that Miss Ruskin has been killed while in London, in a hit and run car accident.

Mary and Holmes know Ruskin’s sudden death is linked to the scroll she left in Mary’s care – which has now placed them in the firing line of whoever wants to keep Mary Magdalene’s letter a secret.

‘A Letter of Mary’ is the third book in Laurie R. King’s ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series.

When I began this book I expected a bit of upheaval in Russell and Holmes’s relationship. After all, when ‘A Letter of Mary’ begins, Mary Russell is twenty-three and Holmes sixty-two-years-old, and they’re recently married. I wasn’t so much surprised by their becoming husband and wife (it’s mentioned in the blurb of all the other books, and there were hints right from book one as an older Mary was narrating) but I was curious to know if there would be a new dynamic between them, now that their relationship had become an intimate one. I’m happy to report that – aside from making Mycroft occasionally blush with the knowledge of their marriage bed – not much has changed between Russell and Holmes. Since about the age of nineteen, she has been his equal and that they’re now married has just seen them become even more of a unit.

Under his guidance I harnessed my angry intelligence. I found a direction for my life, and I came to terms with my past. When I was eighteen, we worked together on a series of cases, which culminated with finding ourselves the target of one of the cleverest, most deadly criminals he had ever faced. After that case, I was an apprentice no longer – I was, at the age of nineteen, a full partner.

There are still some adjustments to married life for the both of them too, which provides a new emotional layer to the story. King is now showing us these two evolving as partners in their detective work, and as a united, married front. This also allows for some tender moments from Holmes, who’s not exactly the most easily affectionate of characters:

‘I wish I had been there. I find it difficult to work with second-hand information, even when it comes from you.’ 
‘So why didn’t you go?’ I said irritably. 
‘I am not criticizing, Russell. There is nothing wrong with the way you gather information – far from it, in fact. It is only that I still find it difficult to accustom myself to being half of a creature with two brains and four eyes. A superior creature to a single detective, no doubt, but it takes some getting used to.’

I will say that the whodunit in this book didn’t quite fascinate me as much as those in books one and two. I should point out at this point that Laurie R. King has included theological aspects in all of the books so far – mostly pivoting around the idea of faith. This is probably because Laurie R. King herself admits a fascination with theology that she’s also given to the character of Mary who is also very proud of her Jewish background. But the discussions have never been so prominent as in ‘A Letter of Mary’, which explores shaking the very foundations of Christianity with a theological feminist investigation. Look, it’s interesting in one regard but a bit too faith-heavy for my liking.

In another way I really enjoyed this book because it majority takes place in London, with Russell doing some under-cover work and really getting stuck into the meat of the investigation and flying solo. I also really enjoyed when Mary was given a glimpse of Sherlock’s old life before retirement, and just how much of an impact he had on Scotland Yard:

‘… Some of the men laugh at him, make jokes about his pipe smoking and violin and all, but they’re laughing at all those stories Dr Watson wrote, and they don’t like to admit that their training in footprints and the laboratory’s analysis of bloodstains and tobacco ashes comes straight from the work of Sherlock Holmes. Even fingerprints – he was the first in the country to use them in a case. Miss Russell, when he says there was murder and a burglary was connected with it, then I for one believe him.’

Speaking of Laurie R. King looking at the impact of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock on her new Sherlock, I read this book at the same time that a huge decision was being made around the copyright of Sherlock Holmes, the character. From the Guardian: “A US court has ruled that Sherlock Holmes – along with 46 stories and four novels he’s appeared in – is in the public domain, reaffirming the expiration of the copyright once owned by the estate of Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle.” The federal suit was brought in early 2013 by author and scholar Leslie Klinger. The suit became necessary after the Doyle estate attempted to extract a license fee for a new book he was co-editing with Laurie R. King. That was really interesting to have in the back of my mind, because I just kept thinking how respectful King is of Conan Doyle’s creation, often paying tribute to his past stories and old cases and ensuring that any Sherlock Holmes fan would find a lot to love in her spin-off series with Mary Russell.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #2 by Laurie R. King

From the BLURB:

It is 1921 and Mary Russell - Sherlock Holmes's brilliant apprentice, now an Oxford graduate with a degree in theology - is on the verge of acquiring a sizable inheritance. Independent at last, with a passion for divinity and detective work, her most baffling mystery may now involve Holmes and the burgeoning of a deeper affection between herself and the retired detective.

Russell's attentions turn to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe, a charismatic suffragette and a mystic, whose draw on the young theology scholar is irresistible. But when four bluestockings from the Temple turn up dead shortly after changing their wills, could sins of a capital nature be afoot? Holmes and Russell investigate, as their partnership takes a surprising turn...

Laurie R. King, ‘editor’ of the Mary Russell memoirs (which she received, curiously and mysteriously, via a trunk of unknown origins) has seen the first of Mary’s manuscripts published. After the publication of ‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice’, King received what she believes to be correspondence from Ms. Russell in the form of a postcard. Investigations into the mysterious author of these memoirs is still ongoing, and King puts a call out for any help in locating her whereabouts.

Meanwhile, in this – the second memoir of Mary Russell’s – ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ was first published in 1995, the second book in ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series.

It’s 1921 and Mary Russell is turning 21 and coming into her inheritance – the considerable business holdings of her late father and real estate of her late mother’s will now officially, legally be Mary’s and out of her dreadful guardian Aunt’s hands. At the same time as she is becoming independently wealthy, and graduating from Oxford with honours in theology and chemistry, Mary’s relationship with the ten-years retired detective Sherlock Holmes is becoming increasingly confusing. That she is his apprentice and he her mentor is never under any doubt – but Mary wonders if she is leaning towards a more amorous relationship with Holmes.

During this confusing time Mary bumps into an old Oxford friend, Veronica Beaconsfield who reaches out to Mary for help. Her ex-fiancé, one Miles Fitzwarren has come home from the Great War a broken, shell-shocked young man with a drug addiction to heroin that Veronica ‘Ronnie’ hopes Mary can have some suggestions for remedy and recuperation.

Ronnie also introduces Mary to her latest ‘do good’ work, for the New Temple of God and its charismatic leader, Margery Childe. In the wake of WWI and the nation’s “surplus women” who find their usefulness during the war effort no longer required, Childe is campaigning for a different suffragette, starting with the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women. The Temple also does considerable good working in providing education services to women, and providing shelters for battered women and children.

Margery Childe is quite a force, verging on a cult leader for all her charisma. But something doesn’t quite sit right with Mary, and when female members of the Temple start dying, she takes up her own investigation independent of Holmes…

This is the second ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ book, and while it doesn’t have quite the same panache and punch as the first (which is also considerably longer than this second instalment) Laurie R. King did manage to have me on the edge of my seat by the end of the book – anticipating both the action, and emotional pay-off that Russell and Holmes go through.
 I had met Sherlock Holmes at a time when adolescence and the devastating circumstances of my orphaning had left me with an exterior toughness and an interior that was malleable to the personality of anyone willing to listen to me and take me seriously. Had Holmes been a cat burglar or forger, no doubt I should have come into adulthood learning to walk parapets at night or concocting arcane inks.

It is worth noting that in this book, Russell finds herself on her own for the majority of the plot. She and Holmes are at an awkward and critical junction in their relationship – there’s a spark between them, that runs far deeper than mentor-apprentice, but neither seem willing to budge and risk their valuable friendship for what could be disastrous intimacy. So Holmes is out of the picture for the majority of this book, and it’s perhaps not quite as enthralling for his lack…

But King makes up for it with her witty, dry prose and a whodunit that’s frightening and captivating. I particularly liked her wry sense of humour of Russell’s description of the leader Margery Childe:

She was a feminist and she had a sense of humour, an appealing combination that was regrettably rare … 
This being set in 1921, there’s also a running-gag about Holmes’s biographer (Arthur Conan-Doyle) embarrassing himself (and Holmes, by extension) with an article he wrote around the Cottingley Fairies affair. This is hilarious, and just one example of how King so beautifully blends myth, history and reality so seamlessly into this story of a fictional character’s real-life counterpart living out a fictitious continued existence beyond his retirement/finale.

I also really liked this book for the emotional pay-off. Mary Russell goes through a lot over the course of this investigation, and by book’s end I could definitely mark out a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in her character. That’s also true of her relationship with Holmes:
 For me, for always, the paramount organ of passion was the mind. Unnatural, unbalanced, perhaps, but it was true: Without intellect, there could be no love.

This was a great book for marrying high-stakes action with the emotional build-up of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes as more than just partner detectives. I am now more invested than ever in this fabulous series, and I can’t wait to see where Russell and Holmes venture next!


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Interview with E. Lockhart, author of 'We Were Liars'


Earlier this year I found what is, quite possibly, my ultimate 2014 Favourite Book - 'We WereLiars' by E. Lockhart. No doubt you’ve heard of this book, which has just been released in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is making some serious waves overseas. 
 In my review of the advanced copy I received form the US, I said of ‘We Were Liars’: “haunting and visceral, full of poignancy and sugary sweetness everyone should read this.” So when the opportunity arose to interview E. Lockhart (who also authored another favourite book of mine, ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’), I naturally jumped at the chance. 

The images you see in this Q&A are from the 'We Were Liars' tumblr and Pinterest pages - something you should definitely check out as a great new addition to the YA social media marketing sphere (and a great behind-the-scenes look at Lockhart's inspiration for the book)!

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
  Agent. But it was not the first project my agent had tried to sell.

Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I often restructure my novels in major ways after a first draft is finished.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘We Were Liars’, from first idea to final manuscript?
I spent 18 months writing the book, but I wrote the proposal and sold it a year before I began writing it.   I do that a lot.  I sell all my books on proposal, now.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
It is different with every book. With We Were Liars I thought of the setting first.  I was interested in an isolated island where people summer year after year, and the kinds of bonds those people would form.

Q: The Sinclairs feel like a very Kennedy-esque American family with a lot of skeletons in their closet. Where did the inspiration for them come from, and what sort of research did you do before writing ‘We Were Liars’?
I think rivalry between siblings  is universal. So is intergenerational conflict. I didn’t base the Sinclairs on anyone in particular, but I have seen people like that around when vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island in Massachusetts with a large and wealthy summer population.

Q: ‘We Were Liars’ has a very tricky narrator in Cadence ‘Cady’ Sinclair Eastman – especially because her narration leaks into the bigger mystery of the book. It reads seamlessly, and a lot of the time I thought it was interesting how readers were piecing together the mystery when Cady was reluctant to. How hard was it to write that narration, and how many drafts before you nailed the unreliable first-person?
The narration in We Were Liars was very, very difficult. I’d estimate 20 drafts.  Depends on what you count as a draft. Maybe 40.


Q: I’m also a big, big fan of ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’, which also has a very unique narrator in an omniscient third-person who reads like a biographer of the future (infamous) Frankie Landau-Banks. I thought it was such a unique way to tackle the defining moment in a young woman’s life – what inspired you to write that book in such a way?
Thank you. The narrator in Disreputable History was very fun to write, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.  The first paragraph came out in that voice and that was that.  All my novels have stylized narration, but most of them are first person. That book is just in third.  Opinionated third person isn’t that common.

Q: 'We Were Liars' is one of the biggest YA books of 2014 - it's getting such rave reviews and a real word-of-mouth fandom is growing. So, have there been any offers to adapt it for film or TV? ... also, who would your dream cast be? 
We Were Liars has been bought for film by Imperative Entertainment, which also bought the screenplay adaptation I wrote . Someone else will rewrite the screenplay, though – a proper screenwriter.  And someone else will cast it – an awesome director, hopefully. 

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?
Adolescence is a chaotic time of life in which huge mental, physical, social and sexual chanes happen.  People separate from their families. They get new bodies. They redefine themselves. They fall in love for the first time.  It is fascinating.

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Jaclyn Moriarty is my favorite YA writer. 

Q: Favourite book(s)?
I love so many. A book that I thought about a lot writing We Were Liars is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
Read.  A lot.  I know not a single working writer who is not remarkably well-read. It is part of the job.


We Were Liars is available from all good bookshops in Australia from August 1

Monday, July 21, 2014

'We Read To Know We Are Not Alone: Examining the Lack of LGBTQI Characters in Australian Youth Literature'

This is my first article to appear in the print edition of literary journal Kill Your Darlings - and it's free to view online!

I examine Australia's lack of LGBTQI focus in youth literature, some possible literary remedies to address this lack and I interview wonderful Aussie YA authors like Eli Glasman (The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a Proper Jew, out now) and Erin Gough (The Flywheel, coming 2015).

I hope you like it. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

'Invisible City' by Julia Dahl

From the BLURB:

Just months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she’s also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah’s shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can’t let the story end there. But getting to the truth won’t be easy—even as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.

Rebekah Roberts moved to New York City from Florida a few months ago. Since then she got a job as a reporter, and lost the same job when the paper folded shortly thereafter (the newspaper business ain’t exactly booming, have you heard?). Now Rebekah has a job working as a ‘stringer’ for tabloid paper, New York Tribune. It’s not her ideal job (certainly not always aligned with her ethics) – as stringer, Rebekah works freelance for the Tribune and is first on the scene for breaking news stories as well as stories less likely to make the final edition. Rebekah doesn’t have an office, per-se, New York is her office and as stringer she needs to get to locations quickly and scout sources (yes, it’s her job to find people who discovered dead bodies, hound police for answers and ask grieving loved ones how they’re feeling).

On a cold, blistery New York morning Rebekah is assigned to a call down at a scrapyard where a body has been found in the mouth of a crane. But what starts as a fairly cut and dry story (though gruesome) quickly captures Rebekah’s attention when the body is confirmed to be that of a woman … then three Hasidic Jewish men arrive on the scene, followed by a specially marked van competing with the coroner for authority over the body, and Rebekah starts to learn just how complicated this story, and case, could become. 

The woman was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is their religious belief that every hair and scrap of blood be buried with the deceased – thereby potentially eliminating evidence. Once the Hasidic community retrieve the body, everyone all but informs Rebekah that the case is over; the NYPD are known to relinquish cases dealing with Hasidic Jews – even homicides – lest they step on religious toes, and they don’t even object when families decline autopsy for murder victims (a body is not allowed to be cut open). 

But this case is hitting close to home for Rebekah, whose own mother was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park, who met Rebekah’s ‘goy’ father during her teenage rebellion when she was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox religion. But once Rebekah was born her mother returned to her community, abandoning her baby and never making contact with her father again. Rebekah has grown up with anxiety and a deep sadness over her mother’s abandonment of her, and she can’t deny that at the back of her mind choosing to move from Florida to New York may have had something to do with wanting to try and find her mother after all these years…

As stringer, it’s Rebekah’s job to move from story to story as the news hits – but she can’t let go of the ‘body at the scrapyard’. Not when she learns the woman’s name – Rivka Mendelssohn – and starts to dig into her life, and discovers she too was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox upbringing, the same way Rebekah’s mother did all those years ago.

Then Rebekah meets Saul Katz, of the NYPD Shomrim (a fraternal organization for Jewish police officers of the New York City Police Department). Saul recognises Rebekah instantly, because he knew her mother and they look so very much alike. Though Saul deals mostly in theft cases, he is very invested in Rivka Mendelssohn’s death, and angry at the lack of NYPD involvement (nobody has even bought in Rivka’s husband, the influential Aron Mendelssohn, for questioning even though he owns the scrapyard where her body was found). He agrees to being Rebekah’s police informant as she keeps digging into the case…

‘Invisible City’ is the debut novel from Julia Dahl, a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice who has previously worked for CBS and the New York Post.

I kept hearing about this book from – who ran several promotional ads and give-aways of Dahl’s debut. I loved the eerie cover, and was thoroughly intrigued by a crime-thriller based around the Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn. Now that I’ve read the book I have half-n’-half feelings, though I am crossing my fingers that Dahl writes more in (what I assume is?) the series, since Goodreads have labelled ‘Invisible City’ as ‘Rebekah Roberts #1’.

Straight off the bat – Rebekah having been abandoned by her Hasidic Jewish mother as a baby rings very, very convenient for this story and starts to feel clunky quite quickly. Yes, it establishes a backdrop for Rebekah and instantly gives readers some idea about the emotional instability of this protagonist. But Dahl relies heavily on Rebekah’s absent mother for plot convenience, when those in the Jewish community can seemingly tell that Rebekah is ‘one of them’ just by looking at her and it’s because of her mother that she gains a vital police informant in Saul Katz. I think Dahl relied on the mother plot too, to cut many corners in Rebekah’s investigations which also meant pacing and suspense sometimes suffered – I think ‘Invisible City’ would have been a very different (perhaps better?) story if Rebekah had actually been a true outsider to this community, instead of feeling torn between her heritage and misplaced feelings of abandonment/rejection by the community.

He thinks I’ve turned away from God. Those were his actual words. I called him to say how bad I’d been feeling sophomore year in college. I told him how I was scared all the time but I didn’t exactly know what of. Well, he said with a kind of sadness, You’ve turned away from God. His words infuriated me. I’ve never seen or heard or felt this “God”, but my life is basically a mess made by people twisting themselves into knots, trying to please him.

I don’t know, possibly Rebekah’s mother could play a bigger part in subsequent stories – but for this first instalment, there was an over-reliance and too much convenience and it even felt like Dahl was cutting emotional corners by being so on-the-nose to have Rebekah investigate the murder of a Hasidic Jewish woman when her own mother was one, and abandoned her for the very same community that harbours Rivka Mendelssohn’s killer. Y’know?

It may sound like I had a really big issue with the whole story, if I couldn’t get past this huge crux of it. But, actually, mother-issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed and was happily sucked into Dahl’s crime-thriller. The Hasidic Jewish setting in Brooklyn is fascinating – I have little to no knowledge about that community, and the way Dahl fed readers information (sometimes outrageous, as it related to the homicide case!) was incredible.

“It’s what they do when it comes to domestic violence and mental illness and sexual abuse. All of which occurs in the community, just like in any other community. But here the shame of coming forward is compounded. Generally, Jews in this community believe that speaking to the authorities about another Jew is a sin against the community. It’s mesirah, they say.” 
Mesirah. It’s Yiddish. It means reporting on your fellow Jew. In the past, in Europe, if a Jew was arrested and sent to prison, he would be killed there. So it was every Jew’s duty to keep other Jews out of prison, which means not talking to the police.” 
“Even now?” 
“Even now.”

This was one crime-thriller in which setting definitely dictated all aspects, and became a character unto itself. It was also really intriguing because Dahl made women such a big focus of the story – the patriarchal world these women live in in the Hasidic community is explored particularly well.

My dad used to tell me stories about my mom as if she were a character in a fairy tale. Like most suburban girls growing up in the 1990s, I learned about sex young. I was nine when our Girl Scout troop went to Planned Parenthood to learn about ovaries and sperm. I learned the rest sporadically from Madonna songs and Maury Povich and maybe someone’s mom’s copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’. I had several years for the act itself to morph from mildly horrifying to potentially cool, and several years after that to actually get involved in doing it. Not my mother. My mother, my father said, learned about sex only in whispers. 
I will say that some aspects of the story needed tightening and cutting. Rebekah has just started a romantic relationship, of sorts, with a local bar-owner called Tony that kind of went nowhere but that Dahl relied on (again, for plot short-cuts) to give Rebekah more ties to the NYPD. Sometimes Dahl’s writing lent itself more to literary styling than crime-thriller (indeed; pacing felt off, particularly at the end, and I felt that overall the book needed bigger injections of ‘thriller’).

This book sways between a 3 and 3.5 for me. This is, after all, Dahl’s debut and if it’s for an ongoing crime series then she has good bones in Rebekah Roberts – the mother stuff may have felt overly convenient for much of this first book, but I see great potential for it to be explored (deeper, and better) in subsequent instalments. I do hope Saul Katz remains a player in any subsequent books too (in fact … I did wonder halfway through if Saul would have been a better protagonist to base this series around, especially when his backstory was far more compelling than Rebekah’s absentee mother for me?). But I can’t deny that Dahl gave me chills with some of her passages, the focus on murder in a Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn makes for captivating reading and I can see future potential for this sleuth. Not perfect, but pretty damn good.


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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