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

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