The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes # 1) - One of my favorite books of all time!
I have lived with the post-Baker St. Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, the young woman who overturned his retirement, for sixteen years. I actually picked up the fourth book, not realizing it was a series, but I quickly backtracked and have been hooked ever since. Really, it seems longer. I re-read the previous books over and over while waiting impatiently for the account of their latest adventure. I have measured every Sherlock Holmes’ pastiche I’ve read since against these books. My interests in historical time periods and so much more have changed because of these books. This is the series that has touched my life more than any other, though there are some that are finally giving it a run for its money.
I say all the above to explain, I cannot be in any way objective about these books. Not only do I love them for their own merits but the connections they carry for so much of my life.
And the series started here, with the young Mary Russell strolling across the Sussex downs…and into an unimaginable future.
As the Watson tales before, Russell chooses to narrate her story in the first person. We see the world through her eyes, and here they are rather young. They are eyes, however, that have also seen a great deal of tragedy and she in no way labels herself an ‘innocent.’ An orphan by terrible circumstances, she is alone in the world until she meets an older Sherlock Holmes, painting blobs on bees. Their meeting proves fortunate for both: she needs someone to accept and train her (her unnamed aunt all but actively against her) and he needs something to challenge him and keep him from stagnating. As the world kills each other in the muck of France in the nineteen teens, Russell becomes the apprentice of the Great Detective. The book covers her life from age 15 to at least 18, though I feel she might be 19 at the end. Not only does she solve crimes with Holmes, but she serves as a land girl and more during the War and goes to Oxford to read Chemistry and Religion.
The characters are so well done. Of course we have the known ones of Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Mycroft Holmes. Each stay true to Doyle’s original outlines, but King fills them out as we see them through a more personal lens. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are handled well as King does not denigrate the first and gives the second a chance to show herself as more than a mere housekeeper. Russell’s reactions to the both of them are wonderful, as she builds a family after the loss of her own. Mycroft is not shown as much but a foundation for so much to come is built in this story. And of course there’s Sherlock Holmes. All too often, writers of pastiches attempt to humanize him as they fill out the near two-dimensional character and when they do, they make him…nice. They water him down until at times he becomes unrecognizable; or, they go in the opposite direction and make him cruel and more like Moriarty then the man to fight against him. Laurie R. King finds a wonderful median, where we see more of him and see further into his personal life but she retains the dichotomy of the man – biting and harsh and yet in his own way he cares for humanity.
Her original characters are good, particularly as they are not overshadowed by their famous co-stars. While some play more important parts then others, each are given some chance to shine. Mary Russell, of course, is the one that dominates the text. I’ll confess, when I first started reading this series, I feared she would be little more than a Mary Sue and therefore of little interest. Instead, I found a complex woman who I don’t always agree with and who is in no way perfect, yet stands out as a strong, intelligent, and sometimes vulnerable young woman. I think what in the end really makes her believable and workable is how she and Holmes complement each other. Their relationship is not like the familiar Holmes and Watson, where one leads and the other follows, rather it is a partnership of equals where one covers where the other falters and provide each other companionship that understands how they see and interact with the world.
One of the main aspects that draw me back to this series every time is the level of research that can be seen. I learn so much from these books, even about events and places I’d never considered before. Here we learn about the British home front during World War I. This helped me chose a subject for at least one college assignment and I continue to try to learn more about this time from this perspective. This book is also where I first learned about the Bodleian and realized it was a place I have to see before I die. You also learn a lot about bees. Like Russell, I originally said I didn’t like bees but you can’t help but change your mind by the end. Bees are woven within this tale and they aid in the reader’s understanding of the situations and the people.
My only, small, issue with this book is that I feel the mystery to be…barely there. I won’t go into details, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t feel this is a mystery as you can’t really solve it. The clues are there but they don’t seem to be and there are not really any suspects. I vaguely remember two of the clues that come right at the beginning piquing my interest but, for me, this has never been a mystery in the strictest sense. Perhaps that’s because this is an introduction, but I feel the story is strong and every time I read it I become so involved in it I barely remember to look for all the clues!
I could discuss this series forever! But I think this particular review has gone on long enough; certainly it feels extremely long. If the above hasn’t clued you in yet, I love this book and think almost anyone should give it a try. I don’t think it will be for everyone but, for me, Laurie R. King writes some amazing Sherlock Holmes stories!
Note: This is not the cover for either of my copies of this.
My original copy was this:
My current copy is this: