The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (thoughts)
Two years ago, I found Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprenticeunder the Christmas tree. Later that night, I curled up with it, and I found myself swept up in pre-World War I England, an intelligent young girl named Mary Russell, and her new mentor: Sherlock Holmes.
I managed to space out reading the following seven in the series over 2007, but after finishing Locked Rooms I felt bereft. So after going all of 2008 without Russell and Holmes, I decided to reread the series in 2009.
Thus, we come back to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I was a little nervous when I first picked it up, but I shouldn’t have worried. It was just as wonderful the second time around! And now I’m going to talk about the actual book, so those of you going “Russell? Holmes?! Eva, what are you rambling on about in your cold-medication-affected brain?” will be satisfied. ;)
Mary Russell is an extraordinarily intelligent fifteen-year-old who, after the death of her parents and brother, has relocated to the British countryside with a mean aunt as a guardian. Although she’s an heiress, until she comes of age she’s stuck under her aunt’s thumb (who actually plays almost no part in the story). So she’s out wandering one day, when she stumbles across a retired Sherlock Holmes, who is trying to enjoy himself as a country beekeeper. Mary’s intelligence matches his own, and Holmes takes her under his wing.
This book is different from most mystery books, and from the other books in the series, because it doesn’t have one murder. It follows Russell from that day at fifteen through her first couple of years at Oxford, and there are several mini-cases that show the development of her detecting powers. Then, the second half of the book is devoted to Russell and Holmes trying to defeat an enemy whose cunning and determination to destroy them matches that of the infamous Moriarty.
So what makes me love this book, and the series, so much? Definitely the characters. I just adore Russell. King handles her development from awkward adolescence to a young woman beginning to blossom with a deft hand (I can see my transformation of the past few years in Russell). Plus, the narrator of the story isn’t an omniscient third person or anything; it’s an older Mary Russell. Her wry tone and observations add another layer to the book that makes it that much more wonderful! I’m also a big fan of King’s Sherlock Holmes: his dry insight that covers his true compassion. And he’s hilarious, in that great British way. The supporting characters-Mycroft (Holmes’ brother), Mrs. Hudson (the housekeeper), and Uncle John (aka Watson)-are nicely rounded out as well.
Strengthening the characters is King’s marvelous ear for dialogue. Everyone speaks in intelligent, amusing ways, but it never stops being realistic (there’s a good dose of everday conversations as well). And each character’s voice is unique to them; you don’t need markers to tell who’s speaking, which to me is a sign of a great writer.
In addition to creating lovable characters, King has a real knack for evoking sense of place and time. It’s not a direct thing I can point to immediately; it’s more a sense that pervades the book. It *feels* historical. And while King doesn’t dwell on descriptions, she can quickly sketch a place. Here’s a taste, describing Holmes’ cottage:
Outside the French doors lay an expanse of flagstones, sheltered from the wind by a glass conservatory that grew off the kitchen wall and by an old stone wall with herbaceous border that curved around the remaining two sides. The terrace gathered in the heat until its air danced, and I was relieved when he continued down to a gorup of comfortable-looking wooden chairs in the shade of an enormous copper beech. I chose a chair that looked down towards the Channel, over the head of a small orchard that lay in a hollow below us.
See what I mean?
I hope I’ve convinced you to give the series a try. It’s one of my very favourites, and I think it’ll appeal to anyone who enjoys wonderful characters, British lit, historical lit, or of course mysteries. So pretty much anyone! *hint, hint* Tomorrow, there’ll be a first here at A Striped Armchair: Laurie King will be stopping by in a guest post. She’s celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of The Beekeeper’s Apprenticewith a blog tour, and thanks to serendipity her publiscist noticed when I had it in my ‘Currently Reading’ sidebar and got in touch with me! And for you fellow Russell devotees, you might be interested to know that Laurie King has a blog with occasional guest posts by Russell herself!
Ok, I’m going back to watching documentaries in my medicine-coma. But you should definitely read this book soon if you haven’t already! And the series only gets better from here. ;)