Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 1

2021_02_10

I first started reading this series by Laurie R. King while I was still at university. The first book came out in 1994, the latest in 2020. One of my best friends, who is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, first introduced me to the series, probably in the late 1990s. I’ve got the first six books as paperbacks and the next five as hardcovers as soon as they were published, because I couldn’t wait. But I hit a snag in one of the hardcovers and somehow haven’t managed to read all of them. That was ten years ago. The last of my hardbacks came out in 2011 and in the meantime seven additional books have been published which I haven’t got in any version.

As the early books were some of my favourite crime novels, I want to pick the series up again and read all the books from first to last. The series is about the adventures of Mary Russel and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is of course the character we know and love who was invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. King’s series plays after the end of Conan Doyle’s stories, after Holmes has retired to the countryside to breed and study bees. In January I read the first two books in King’s series.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or On the Segregation of the Queen

The novel has a small, non-intrusive framing action, which is only mentioned at the beginning in the editor’s preface, written by Laurie R. King, where she tell the reader that one day she received a strange box containing a few manuscripts and some odd knick-knacks. She edited one of the manuscripts and published it but says that she cannot decide if it is fact or fiction.

The next part of the novel is the short author’s prelude, in which Mary Russell appears as the author of the book. She is in her nineties, looking back at her life with Sherlock Holmes, astonished and amused by the fact that all the world takes Sherlock Holmes for a fiction, when she has known him as a real person:

[…] I must assert that the following pages recount the early days and years of my true-life association with Sherlock Holmes.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xx.

She talks of the following tale as part of her memoirs and she sets herself up as Holmes equal (not like Dr. Watson, who was always his inferior in intelligence):

Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xxi.

So, basically, the reader gets a younger female version of the famous detective, working alongside him and is also expected to consider both as real persons. This conceit very effectively caught my imagination when I first read it, years ago, and I still think it is a brilliant idea.

The novel is narrated by Mary Russell in the first person. At the beginning of the novel she is a young girl, 15 years old, a Jewish-English-American orphan growing up with an aunt who hates and is jealous of her. She has just moved to the village to which Sherlock Holmes has retired and she meets him by almost stumbling over him out on the Sussex downs while he is studying the behaviour of some bees. After a bit of a quarrel they become firm friends and Holmes takes her under his wing and teaches her his way of detection and all sorts of other things. Hence the title Beekeeper’s Apprentice. The novel covers a few years during which Russell supports Holmes with some of his cases, some of which are quite thrilling. She also keeps up her own studies and goes to Oxford where she takes up Theology (much to Holmes’ horror) and Chemistry. Near the end of the novel, they have a run-in with one of Holmes enemies and have to leave the country for a while to regroup before managing to foil the enemy.

During the novel, the reader learns a lot of Russell’s background, how she lost her family and how it affected her; about her intellectual and academic interests. The crime elements are well done and quite suspenseful, but a lot of the focus of the novel is on the development of the characters and the relationship between them. A few of the characters known from Conan Doyle’s stories also turn up, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson, as well as Holmes brother Mycroft and the Scotland Yard detective Lestrade. There are also new characters: Mary’s friends at Oxford, her aunt (who is barely mentioned because Mary can’t stand her) and her farm manager as well as the characters they interact with in their criminal investigations. There’s also the first world war, as Russell and Holmes first meet in 1915 and the trip out of the country to Palestine – many and various are the themes of the novel.

The book is a delightful start to the series. It hooked and pulled me in. If you like mystery novels that feature two intellectuals, their interests, and their relationship in addition to crime elements, you should like the book and the series. If you are a Sherlock Holmes purist, you may not like the series, because it focusses more on Russell than on Holmes and it does take liberties with the famous detective.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women

The second in the series. In it, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes deal with one case (not a few smaller ones as in the first novel). We again have the conceit that Laurie R. King just published a manuscript sent to her (for unknown reasons) by Russell.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Russell, still the first-person narrator, has graduated from Oxford, written her first theological essay, is just turning 21 and coming into her inheritance, so that she can throw out her aunt and live independently. When in London to deal with her solicitors, she meets an old friend from Oxford, Veronica Beaconsfield, and is drawn into the congregation of a strange woman, Margery Childe, who seems to be creating a religious Christian movement for women. Russell finds Childe quite fascinating and is drawn into tutoring her in feminist theology. Soon, however, there’s an attempt made on Veronica’s life and it appears that in the past a number of Childe’s followers, who had left their fortunes to her community, had met sudden and suspicious deaths. Russell and Holmes start an investigation during which Russell is abducted by the villain in an attempt to also get her fortune by foul means. Of course, Holmes comes to the rescue and together they solve the mystery.

In this novel, there’s a bit of theology (probably quite mundane for experts, but new and interesting to me when I first read it) and there’s a lot of focus on the changing relationship between Mary and Holmes. As I always prefer crime novel that have strong character development and show the lives of the protagonists apart from their detecting jobs, I liked it a lot.

The novel is set in December 1920 to February 1921, so 100 years before the time I read it this year, a fun fact.
I’m going to continue with the series and am looking forward to reading installments new to me (but first there’ll be four or five installments that I’ve already read).

By the way, I’ve also read the Kate Martinelli series by this author, which I also liked and can recommend. There are five books in that series, about a lesbian detective, and the last one is a kind of cross-over with the Russel and Sherlock series.

Keep safe, world.

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