The Beekeeper's Apprentice

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
Laurie R. King, 1994

And finally we come to the book I had already read (and re-read).  This is where I may have to surrender my Holmes canon-guard certification.  Because I love this book.  I was worried that I wouldn't this time through, that it wouldn't hold up to a more critical eye, but I can't resist it.

Yes, it would be unfair not to mention here that King occasionally uses similar tactics to those that ticked me off in other books I've written up.  In Russell's first scene, her analysis is perhaps a bit too Holmesian, (which I criticized Adler for), but Russell is an original character, and has the advantage of having already read many of the Holmes stories.  Besides which, after the first scene, she ought to sound like Holmes. 

King adds an introduction in which she explains why the prose doesn't read quite like Watson, and why Holmes perhaps comes off a bit differently, (a bad author habit I harped on twice before).  Here, though, her explanation is in character, if more defensive than it needs to be, and the reasoning sound.  The explanation in The Crimes of Dr. Watson was maybe Doyle hadn't 'edited' the text.  Please.  King gets a pass from me.  She doesn't sound like Watson, or describe things in the same way, because the book is narrated by Russell.  Simple as that.  Besides which, the novel itself is beautifully written, in a consistent tone which meshes well with original Holmes, without trying to copy it.

King only takes one major liberty with canon.  She gently shifts Holmes's age, something never cited explicitly in the originals anyway, implying that he was very young upon meeting Watson and setting up shop in Baker Street.  (Not impossible: he is still a "student" of some kind at this point, and cannot afford his own apartment.  Speculation and analysis in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes puts King's timeline as later than most, but not outside what others have suggested.)

Okay.  Here's where you have to trust me.  I know it sounds like fanfiction, but these books are really good.  King is moving Holmes' age around to make the May-December relationship she's setting up later in the series plausible.  Which is fine with me, because I adore Mary Russell.  Piercingly smart, subtly dark, you get the sense that Russell is Holmes' equal in a very different way than the dashing, artistic Irene.  There have been 9 novels about Russell and Holmes, and I have enjoyed all of them, but this is the introduction.  The title should give you some obvious clues to the content.  Russell and Holmes meet when he has been "retired" to Sussex, and the study of bees, for several years.  She is a teenager preparing to study theology at Oxford, who sometimes dresses in boy's clothing and recently lost her parents.
Thus my life began again, in that summer of 1915.  I was to spend the first years of the war under Holmes' tutelage, although it was some time before I became aware that I was not just visiting a friend, that I was actually being taught by Homes, that I was receiving, not casual lessons in a variety of odd and entertaining areas, but careful instruction by a professional in his area of considerable expertise.  I did not think of myself as a detective; I was a student of theology, and I was to spend my life in exploration, not of the darker crannies of human misbehavior, but of the heights of human speculation concerning the nature of the Divine.  That the two were not unrelated did not occur to me for years.
It's hard to write about books I like, and probably less entertaining to read the commentary, for which I apologize.

The book is broken up into large chunks; the early apprenticeship and various episodes, then their first real case, and Russell entering college, together make up the first half.  There are weaknesses in some of the storytelling of the main/second half plot.  I could go through in detail about which bits work, which are slightly too melodramatic, too long, too short, too on-the-nose, too unexplained, etc.  But it'd just be nitpicking.  I really like this book.

I've tried Laurie R King's other work, but her other main series, about a modern-day homicide detective in San Francisco, leaves me a bit cold.  It's not bad, but it's already a little dated.  Here's a spoiler for the first one, A Grave Talent: the female detective, 'Kate', lives with someone named 'Lee', and Lee doesn't get any gendered pronouns for a somewhat ridiculous amount of time.  They may not be straight!  Shock!  Not for the other characters, they all know, but for the reader!  Shock!  It was a little silly.

To sum up Mary Russell, though, King personally captured my heart forever in one silly, off-hand passage.  Here you go:

[Russell is 18, braiding her hair.  Holmes is injured and close to sleep: ]
"I asked Mrs. Hudson once why she thought you wore your hair so long.  She said it was a vestige of femininity." 
My hands went still.  This was the first time in our acquaintance that he had commented on my appearance, other than to disparage it.  Watson would never have believed it possible.  I smiled down at the fire and continued the plait.

"Yes, she would think that, I suppose."

"Is it true?"

"I think not.  I find short hair too much fuss, always needing combing and cutting.  Long hair is much easier, oddly enough."

There was no answer, but soon a gentle snore reached my ears. I took a spare blanket from the shelf and pulled it around me on the chair.  My spectacles I laid on the little table next to me, the room retreated into fuzziness, and I slept.
 I know I'm in love with Mary Russell.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Basil of Baker Street

Monday, February 15, 2010

Basil of Baker Street
Eve Titus, 1958

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I appreciated it on several levels, just not the level of actually reading the thing.

I know, it's intended for kids.  Small kids.  We should just say it's not one of those kids books that holds up. 

For the unaware, this is the first of 5 books about 'the mouse Sherlock Holmes'.  And yes, these books are the inspiration for Disney's The Great Mouse Detective.  Unlike in the movie, in which the mice seem to lead a parallel but largely separate life from humans, in the book Basil and Dawson actively eavesdrop on Holmes and Watson to learn about detecting.  They even move all their friends into a town they build in the basement of 221B.  This should be cute, but oddly diminishes Basil.  Faced with the example of actual Holmes, he is overawed, and over the course of this book managed to do relatively little.  They follow some obvious footprints, wait for a message from a kidnapper, make some deductions about the messenger, follow him in disguise, and track down the villains.  It's a small story, written for a very young audience.  Basil comes off as competent, but far more average than any Holmes doppelganger ought to.  The "joke" about him painstakingly building a tiny violin, then being totally unable to play it, just made me sad for him.  I felt like he could never live up to his hero.

That said, I do appreciate it on its intended level.  Ms. Titus somewhat adorably dedicates the book as follows:
To Adrian M Conan Doyle
in the humble hope that this book for boys and girls will be a bridge to Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself
and if it was, then fantastic.

According to Wikipedia, this may be the only one in the series not to concern Professor Ratigan.  Too bad for me, although I can't currently imagine the well-meaning Ms Titus crafting a truly evil villain. 

Now I'll try to be fair.  Amazon says ages 4-8, which is younger than I was expecting sight unseen.  For that level, it's fine, but not extraordinary.  The less it harps on Basil's fanatical adoration of Holmes, the better it gets. 

However, I grew up with, and love, The Great Mouse Detective.  I just guess I wasn't missing anything not knowing the source material.

TANGENT:  I think The Great Mouse Detective is a very fun Holmes Pastiche.  Everything is toned down from Doyle, (while being much more active/dark than the Titus book) but there is a lot of violence for a Disney flick.  Incidentally, my love for this movie is also the main reason I am against the current move towards censorship/rating penalty for smoking in kids movies.  The little in-jokes for Holmes fans are fun; Basil's workbench with ash and footprint analysis, the line of actual Holmes dialogue overheard at one point is from a recording of Basil Rathbone...  It says something about me that I thought about TGMD while watching the new Sherlock Holmes movie last fall.  Internal dialogue: well, okay, I guess I can enjoy this's wacky, but it's not really zanier than The Great Mouse Detective, and it's not fair for me to hold this to a higher standard.  The fact that one is a blockbuster in 2009 and the other a semi-forgotten animated movie from 1986 about mice is immaterial here.  To me, they're both Holmes Pastiches.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Good Night, Mr. Holmes

Monday, February 8, 2010

Good Night, Mr. Holmes
Carole Nelson Douglas, 1990

(Some Spoilers)

I wanted to like this book, and I sort of did.  I guess I just wasn't swept away by it due to, well, knowing the entire story (more or less) beforehand.  This novel introduces Ms. Douglas's version of Irene Adler (who stars in at least 7 more books, according to the inside flap), and covers the time leading up to and covering the events of "A Scandal in Bohemia".  I think I'm glad that I wrote my mini-dissertation on Adler before reading this book, given that we come to many of the same conclusions.

This Irene is worldly but not promiscuous, a musician first and foremost, briefly believed in the possibility of marriage with the King of Bohemia, only to have those romantic hopes firmly dashed.  The King is presented as a spoiled man-child, who leads Irene on, only to be furious when she declines the offer to become his mistress.

Holmes' admiration for (but no romantic attraction to) Irene is made quite clear.

So the book is basically the story from her perspective. 

Except that also she's a bit of a sleuth.  And furnished with a more proper-minded narrator/sidekick.

I knew this going into the book, so I thought that I was ready, but I just didn't buy it, entirely.  Douglas made Irene a little too much Holmes' equal, for my taste.  Not that she shouldn't be as smart as, or smarter, than he, but here and there the methodology overlapped too much.

Not to mention the thoroughly odd early encounter with Jefferson Hope, and the sub-plot, when both Adler and Holmes are set on the trail of some missing French diamonds.  It's just... doesn't quite all hang, for me.  It's not a bad book, it's well written, the narrator is fine, the canon-meshing with "Scandal" is... 97 percent there, although occasionally awkward.

Maybe I would enjoy another from the series more, now that she's moved past having to agree with canon.

I do appreciate that this edition contains an interview with the author, in which she loudly airs her objections to Baring-Gould's pet Holmes/Adler theory (future affair, child, etc...).  If nothing else had endeared me to this book, I do appreciate Douglas making Godfrey Norton a nice guy and an unconventional gentleman, their marriage one of affection as well as convenience.  I get the sense that he appears in the later books, much as a occasionally seen but supportive wife might in another series.  Nice.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Selections from the Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Monday, February 1, 2010

Selections from the Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by John Joseph Adams, 2009

So, I currently am borrowing a Kindle, so naturally I want to try it out.  Preferably without buying anything, since it's not actually my Kindle.  I decided to see if I can get anything from the Baen Free Library.  And lo and behold, there is an offering entitled, Selections from the Improbable.... So I download it, as a well-timed experiment.

I'm telling you this so that you'll know that I don't have a copy of The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in front of me.  I haven't read Stephen King's story, or Laurie R. King's.  But the following nine stories are available for free online, all but two as a free ebook.  Each title below is linked to the text, so if you have lots of time to kill, you can see whether you agree with my reactions.  Talk about immediate gratification.

I like this compilation, as an idea.  It's mostly reprints from various anthologies that have been done, Holmes and Lovecraft, Holmes and Sci-fi, Holmes and Ghosts, etc.  At least one comment I've read online applauded that, unlike with the source volumes, this way you don't get burned out on any one gimmick.  I would add, that this also means you're never quite sure what to expect, which is fun.  Also, the mere fact that these are short stories was a positive.  It's easier for the authors to maintain a strong tone over the shorter length.  There may be small spoilers below, but mostly just for the premise of each, so you can see if you want to read the whole thing.

The Horror of the Many Faces, by Tim Lebbon
This is the first of two Holmes and Lovecraft stories in this list.  And I really liked this one, it might be my favorite short story out of all of these.  It managed a strong opening, a strong climax, a strong close, which none of the others really did.  Really surprisingly good.  Kept in tone, with heavily dark tweaks.  Emphasized the effect on Holmes to be faced with the truly unknown.

Adventure of the Field Theorems, by Vonda N. McIntyre:
(not in the ebook)
Cute and fairly clever.  I appreciate playing with the irony of Holmes vs. Doyle, in terms of the contradictions in Doyle's later life.  Also Holmes investigates crop circles.

The Adventure of the Death-Fetch, by Darrell Schweitzer:
This one was too directly weird.
It wasn't funny enough to be camp, or dark enough to be intriguing, or complex enough to be compelling.  Has a bad joke/pop culture ref, but wasn't amusing enough prior to that to earn it.

The Adventure of the Lost World, by Dominic Green:
Dinosaurs, so you have to expect that this one is zany, campy silliness.  On that level, it's not bad.  Amusing idea, to double up Holmes and Lost World, would maybe have been better to actually bring Prof Challenger in as a character.

Dynamics of a Hanging, by Tony Pi:
This fan-fic-esque tangling of Watson, Lewis Carroll, Doyle and Moriarty was fine.   Slightly cutesy, and no action here, purely a mental puzzle. 

Merridew of Abominable Memory, by Chris Roberson:
The story itself is fine, if the framing and all the nattering on about the nature of memory somewhat obvious.  Also the connection to the phrase the story is hung on (the title, itself a quote from "The Adventure of the Empty House") is a bit thin and the introduction of Merridew early on fairly clumsy.  Overall, heavy-handed but still solid.

The Adventure of the Green Skull, by Mark Valentine:
Fairly standard fare, not bad, not exceptional.  Reads like one of the mediocre Holmes canon tales, which is a pretty good accomplishment in itself, but it didn't add much.  Nice to have someone use the stories as a weapon.

You See But You Do Not Observe, by Robert J. Sawyer:
HA HA HA HA HA. This one is Holmes plus quantum theory.
Okay, it was slightly corny but pretty awesome.

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman:
(not available in the ebook, you'll see why if you click the link.  It's a pdf)
This is a cute spin on A Study in Scarlet (obviously).  Okay, it was actually super cute.  I would describe it as an adorable Holmes and Lovecraft mash-up.  I know that sounds weird, but don't worry, it's dark.  Go read it, especially if you're a Holmes fan.  Go on, I'll wait.
Did you read it?  Cute, huh?  It's actually worth a second read too, where you can pick up on all the places where he telegraphs the twist, but you just can't see it.  Well played, Mr. Gaiman.

Overall for these selections:  4 Stars