The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
It has been a while since I found a book I could not put done. Though, truth be told, I had been searching for this book for a few years now and had finally bit the bullet and bought myself a copy. Laurie R. King’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is not new to me. I had picked up one of her later books in this series titled the Moore, which first introduced me to Mary Russell, and her version of Sherlock Holmes. That book fascinated me and I was desperate to find her first book where the two first met.
It did not disappoint. Mary Russell has become one of my favourite heroines. Smart, intelligent and a good temper to match the wits and sarcasm of Holmes. The paring at first seems a bit ridiculous but as the book continues, you see the love the two characters share for each other.
But I feel that I am getting a head of myself, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a first person narrative from Mary Russell herself, as she recounts her early years spent with the great detective. She meets him at fifteen years old and the book travels through the next four years of her life spent with him as a friend, tutor and confidant. Holmes a this point in life is in his fifties and retired, living in a cottage in Sussex, where Mary herself lives on a farm estate belonging to her deceased family, with a very unkind aunt.
The year is 1915, which gives the background setting of WWI, as well as hints as to what was socially acceptable. I would have to say if I have not been a fan of Downton Abby I may not understand the issues of a grown man spending large portions of time unchaperoned with a young girl, as well as the role of women during that time period.
The first meeting of the two is one of the best first encounters i’ve seen. There is Holmes laying on the ground, studying bees when Russell comes up, nose in book and practically trips over him, which begins a debate. We see Mary’s temper and intelligence as she quickly observes Holmes and even discover’s his intentions without him giving it away himself. Though the best part of that scene was when he calls Mary “boy”. (She had been dressed in trousers with her hair hidden in her hat). Of course Mary by now realizes whom she had been arguing with and with some satisfaction removes her hat and states she is a girl. Which flabbergasts Holmes for only a brief moment before he picks up their discussion where it was left off.
From that point on, gender is not given into consideration. Holmes finds the bright mind of Mary fascinating and begins to hone it, and teach her his skills as a detective. There are a few moments throughout the book, upon the rise of Mary’s change from student to apprentice to partner that the issue of gender, of her being a woman arises from the police force. It is Holmes that steps up first, as Mary is actually lost for a moment at the joke that is made at her expense. It is then quickly driven under the carpet as the case is moved forward.
It is interesting to note these slights from time to time, how during the war and even the aftermath of the war the roles of women were being challenged, and how the author was able to place that tibit in there to give Mary some more conflict while attempting to help Holmes on his cases.
The cases themselves are rather scattered throughout the story, as the main plot is the relationship that is created between Holmes and Russell, the cases only further their connection to each other. For the first half of the book it is about Russell’s training, with small cases to help her along. It is not until the second half that we the reader are faced with a much more dangerous case that attempts to kill Holmes, Russell and even Watson.
It is this later case that is the real driving force of the story. For the first half we learn of these two characters, how they interact and care for each other. From Russell’s first case as an apprentice with Holmes to one of her taking the lead of her own case. There is the first case which Holmes actually takes her across England, in full disguise and where Rusell must learn to act a part to gather information. We see through Russell’s eyes her own intelligence grow as she takes risks similar to Holmes. And with Holmes faced with a real partner he could leave responsibilities with and carry on an intellectual conversation with, unlike Watson.
You get hooked with the two working so well together, they think like each other and are able cover eachother’s back that when they return from a vacation to the Promise Land (a method to escape England while their lives were in danger) that their only way to find the culprit behind it all was to act as enemies. Russel, now 18, most now pretend to loath Holmes, they spit insults at each other then entire trip back in order for Russell to sneak in behind enemie lines and make the final blow before the blow is taken at Holmes.
It was heartbreaking to read that part of the story, as well as learning more about Russell’s past and her family and her own connection to her family’s demise, told finally to Holmes on their third day of warfare between each other.
I will not give away the end, of the last case and who was behind it all, as it’s too good to just reveal, like any Holmes detective stories. But I will say that it shared much of the same attributes of Doyle’s works, only told through a female point of view.
Really, what better way to show up Holmes then with “a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen year old feminist sidekick”?
For all those Sherlock fans, I highly recommend reading King’s books. They are refreshing and exciting to read.