Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (The Mary Russell #1) by Laurie R. King

I desperately needed something fun and easy to read….and this time of year I just love a good mystery….something about the turning leaves and the cool, slightly foggy mornings….geese flying south for the winter, the pumpkins ripening….I just love fall and always associate mysteries as the season’s preferred genre….maybe it’s the spirit Halloween (incidentally that is my fav holiday as well)!

I just finished reading The September Society by Charles Finch and was hungry for another mystery but was waiting for my mom to give me back my copy of the next book in the series (The Fleet Street Murders) that I plan on reading next. So I was stuck wondering what to read.

My sister and I went to this great used bookstore in my hometown a few weeks ago and she suggested that I read this series called the Mary Russell series, the first book being The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King. The bookstore had it in stock so I bought it, took it home, put it on my shelf, and kind of forgot about it.

As I was browsing through for something to read the bright yellow honeycomb cover totally stood out so I grabbed it and started reading….my only regrets were that I didn’t pick this book up MONTHS ago and didn’t buy the next book in the series (because of course they don’t have the book in stock anymore! I was so upset that I had to ‘bookmark it’ every night so I could actually get up for work the next day….I was DYING to get home and start reading it again.

HELLO NEW FAVORITE BOOK SERIES! 🙂

The Mary Russell series is a mixture of the original Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the contemporary Holmes-style sleuth in the Charles Lenox series and the modern (and female) Indiana Jones-style archeologist turned detective in the Amelia Peabody series. The first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, follows protagonist Mary Russell from the moment she meets Sherlock Holmes while roaming the Sussex Downs reading a book–she literally steps on him. Holmes becomes her mentor and close friend, teaching her everything he knows…more or less molding her into his own little ‘mini me’.

In this first book, we more or less see how their relationship develops and changes….Russell’s mind is exceptionally gifted in the method of deduction (like Holmes), she is a modern feminist who is eager to learn a wide variety of study (at Oxford she is studying theology and chemistry, talk about two vastly different fields!!). What I liked about the series is that we learn not only a lot about Holmes but that we follow more than one case in the novel (though they are linked to each other).

In the original series, Holmes retires to his estates in Sussex around 1904 when England is on the verge of war and a major social change….Holmes in many ways marks the ending of an era and one of the things that King points out in the Discussion/Author Interview section at the close of Beekeeper is that through Russell, Holmes becomes ‘modern’…he changes with the times so to speak.In addition to my familiarity and love of all thing Victorian Era, my next fav historic era would be Edwardian/WWI Era. I love that this series bridges the gap between the two periods beautifully.

Another thing that King noted in the closing interview in Beekeeper was that because she didn’t make Holmes the central character he was free to evolve as a supporting character which I thought was really important to the development of Russell’s character. When my sister suggested this series I was a little skeptical, I have been reading a lot of Holmes style books lately that don’t feature Holmes as a character but follow the similar style and it is hard to read those books and wonder ‘have’t I read this before’?

So when I saw that the Russell series actually HAD Holmes as a character almost put me off all together but I was intrigued nevertheless. I was pleasantly surprised that Russell develops into a character all her own and King is right Holmes himself kind of fades into the background letting Russell shine through as the heroine–unique and yet familiar.

I think it really helped to set the series slightly after the Edwardian period ushering in the Great War…..WWI was truly a society changing event. Out with the bland, austere arm candy that many Victorian women were and in with the new, working, smart, independent modern women! Russell wasn’t overly feminist to be not believable….nor was she too rigid to be  out of place in the period….she was literally perfect as a more transitional modern woman.

Likewise, when we meet Holmes he is still the typical ‘old fashion’ Victorian gentleman…but he too is changing with the times. He respects and recognizes Russell as his equal making the issue of her sex mute. His character never makes the reader feel like he doesn’t think of her as competent and I never read him as being an old out of fashion man.

Honestly I had a hard time reading his character and NOT seeing the modern Robert Downey Jr version of Sherlock Holmes…..which I have been looking for a series which does exactly that! Though supposedly ‘retired’ at the age of fifty-four with his little bee farm in Sussex….Holmes and Russell make a surprisingly good pair (she is fifteen when they meet). Though I must say for all of Russell protests in the book that they are nothing more than friends, I see a romance in the future…..how can you NOT see that when reading this book?!?!

As I mentioned before, Holmes and Russell work together, collaborating on a couple of different cases in the book, first being the kidnapping of Jessica Simpson and later the bombing of Holmes’s country estate in Sussex. Most of the book follows Russell’s training with Holmes with a few minor cases thrown in as they are important to Russell’s character development and training, and then the two larger cases of the kidnapping and bombings.

I loved that this book was set not only in London, but in the English country side also. London always offers a rich back drop but it is nice to have the story take place in the countryside as well….I liked that Russell and Holmes travel to the Middle East….it gave the book a distinct and colorful edge. I love travel and travel stories….so it added an unexpected depth and intriguing tale that Russell didn’t elaborate on too much but then I suspect we will read about those ‘cases’ and ‘stories’ at a later date? Hopefully 🙂

Besides the fact that this is a greatly constructed mystery with lots of twists and turns, it is an intelligent read. The language isn’t overly formal but the tone is certainly more sophisticated than some of the other mysteries I have read that are similar to Holmes. There is not the eloquent fluff of many Victorian novels (like the original Holmes series) but there isn’t the ‘dummy-ing down’ of the language either which I thought was important.

I liked that I had to look up a couple of words in the dictionary as I am a sucker for random useless language and trivia :).

I thought it was important to preserve the intelligence not only of Russell but of Holmes overall…..dummy-ing down the language I think undercuts all that Holmes stood for and all that the Edwardian era stood for. Holmes was an intelligent character, it makes sense to preserve his intellectualism and the era itself was about moving from formal to colloquial not only in language/speech but overall society so keeping things ‘smart’ sounding but not OVERLY smart sounding is important I think.

I also liked that the epigraphs to the chapters are from another literary work of the same period called The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck. There was a lot of interesting philosophy in those little epigraphs :). One of my favorite epigraphs was the from chapter seven:

…directing all things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not recognition (137).

All of the epigraphs were obscure and seemed to not really have relevance until the pattern emerged….though my lack of ability to see that pattern immediately did not make them any less intriguing…in fact I looked forward to reading little quotes with each chapter but it did take me a while to see that there was a method to the madness….and I was curious about the source so I researched. I thought it was really neat that King included not only a work from the period but an obscure piece form the period that also pertained to the whole bee theme. Very clever!

One thing that I especially liked about the series was how King explained Holmes’s character to the reader….she really has a way of explaining him in a way that the modern reader can appreciate. For example, Russell asks Holmes when they are at the opera if he really knows who he is:

‘Holmes…I realize the question sounds sophomoric but do you find that there are aspects of yourself with which you feel most comfortable?’…’Who am I? you mean…Do you know what a fugue is? [Holmes replied]…’I see. Two discrete sections of a fugue may not appear related unless the listener has received the entire work at which time the music’s internal logic makes clear the relationship’ [Russell said]. (209)

Later Russell seems to finally realize who Holmes is and ultimately understand and compare how this conversation relates to them individually as characters and then together as a pair:

I drove myself. I ate less, worked invariably into the early hours of the morning, drank brandy now to help me sleep….I became in other words more like Holmes than the man himself: brilliant, driven to a point of obsession, careless of myself, mindless of others, but without the passion and the deep down, inbred love for the good of humanity that was the basis of his entire career. He loved the humanity that could not understand him or fully accept him: I in the midst of the same human race became a thinking machine. (287)

Both Holmes and Russell are essentially different but at the same time very much a like, they both know who they are but at times cannot fully see or appreciate the entire person (in themselves and each other). It is a complex and yet intellectually intriguing relationship that I see coming in the books that follow. I am very excited to continue reading the series!

Mary as a narrator was lots of fun to read, her voice was perfect…she had a way of glossing over parts of the story and making references to other books in the original Holmes series but didn’t make me feel like I was missing out on the story or missing out because I had not read the original series. Mary had great insight and I loved the parenthetical comments and her charming ‘typically’ British wit.

This series is an absolute MUST READ if you like Sherlock Holmes….it is a little more geared toward female readers but still I think male readers would enjoy it just as much. I cannot WAIT to pick up the second book in the series. This is a smart intellectual puzzling mystery, it has all the fun twists with red herrings and cloak and dagger-isms that go into a good mystery….the classic characters are familiar but yet depicted with a new ‘breath of fresh air ‘ feel to them.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (The Mary Russell #1) by Laurie R King 

  • Paperback, 346 pages
  • Published October 2nd 2007 by Picador (first published 1994)
  • ISBN 0312427360 (ISBN13: 9780312427368)

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 5 out of 5 (Amazing, read it!)

Genre: Historic Fiction, Mystery

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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8 Comments

  1. david in maine

     /  October 22, 2011

    Mary Russell series – sounds interesting, although it may be a while before i check them out.

    I think it would also be rewarding to read Sherlock Holmes someday…

    thanks for sharing

    Reply
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