"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or On the Segregation of the Queen

King, Laurie R. The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or On the Segregation of the Queen. New York: Picador, 1994. 346 pages.

"In 1915, Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honeybees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs.  Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, the young Mary Russell displays intellect to impress even Sherlock Holmes--and match him wit for wit. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protegee and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective." (description from the book cover)

Overall rating: ***** (five stars)

  • Subtle social commentary.  Though this book is not about WWI, many interesting observations are made of the effect of the war on British society.  This is a theme which becomes more important in later books.
  • Narrative style.  The book is told in first person narration by someone who is looking back over past experiences.  This often leads to amusing side notes by the narrator. ("Looking back I am deeply embarrassed at the effrontery of a girl not yet nineteen pointing her finger at a man nearly three times her age, and her teacher to boot, but at the time it seemed appropriate.")
  • The mysteries.  In many mystery books, such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories and the original Holmes stories by Doyle, the detective is entirely outside the case, with the only personal thing at stake being the detective's reputation. King is not afraid to bring the mysteries home to her protagonists, giving us more emotional insight in the psychological tolls of such work.
  • Characterization. Not only are the two main characters both fully-fleshed, real people with plenty of strengths and flaws, the minor characters are never treated just as handy tools to move along the plot.
  • Chronology.  Early in the book, the narration skips about in time a bit, making it a wee bit difficult to keep the chronology straight until the book has settled back down into a more linear structure.
  • Appropriation of an already existing character.  This is not a problem for me, but for anyone who is a Sherlock Holmes purist and who strongly disapproves of anyone trying to write stories about someone else's characters, I would not recommend reading this. 
When my mom first brought home the audiobook of The Beekeeper's Apprentice and I saw the premise, that is Sherlock Holmes training a younger, female assistant, I was skeptical.  Now, many years and books in the series later, the Mary Russell books have become a favorite series of my whole family.  As much as I love all of the books in the series, the first one will always be among my absolute favorite books.

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King plays a mind-game practiced for decades by Sherlock Holmes scholars: that the world's first (and only) consulting detective was, in fact, a real man, and the adventures chronicled by John Watson, MD actually happened.  King takes this game a step further.  Not only are her works not fiction, they are in reality the memoirs of a woman named Mary Russell, who met Sherlock Holmes at the age of 15 and was trained by him in his detective methods, memoirs that have been mysteriously mailed to Ms. King for reasons unknown.

The title of this first book in the series is a reference to both Sherlock Holmes' retirement occupation of beekeeping on the Sussex Downs, and to the title of his treatise on that subject.  The book begins with the meeting of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in 1915, and chronicles their adventures against the backdrop of the home front during World War I. The book spans about five years and during these years we see changes in both Russell and Holmes as a result of their relationship with each other.
Naturally, as this is a book about Sherlock Holmes, it is a mystery.  It is actually a few mysteries, culminating in a case that dominates the second half of the book.  It also makes reference to many aspects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's cannon of stories and novels.  This does not, however, mean that an extensive knowledge of the original Holmes works is necessary for an appreciation and understanding of this book.  It is a well-crafted work in its own right, in addition to being a poignant homage to the source material.


    1. Just popped in from Ravelry after reading your comment on my comment about this book. ;-) I enjoyed your review and will bookmark your blog!


    2. I'm glad you enjoyed the review and I hope that you're enjoying the book :) I'm just getting this blog of the ground, so every new reader is a victory!