Thursday, January 6, 2011
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
In 1915 a recently orphaned Mary Russell is wandering around Sussex reading Virgil when she nearly trips over a middle aged man studying bees. This man is Sherlock Holmes. Retired to the countryside and amusing himself as a beekeeper, he soon forms a friendship with the young woman who shows an aptitude for observation. Soon he is training her in his methods and the two embark on a series of adventures together including one that puts their lives and their partnership in danger.
Although I was skeptical about a Sherlock Holmes spin-off, this was an excellent book. King clearly loves Doyle's Holmes and brings him to life in a way that doesn't attempt to copy the original stories, but shows respect for them none the less. The reason this story works is that it is told through the eyes of Mary and it is her story, Sherlock Holmes isn't the protagonist. Her character is very well drawn. She avoids becoming a Mary-Sue by being so very realistic. She doesn't automatically equal Holmes' skill, she has to go through training and she makes mistakes and misses things at times.
She is also unafraid to stand up to him, in spite of being an avid reader of Watson's stories of his exploits. In fact, she is prepared to hate Watson when she meets him, but the two form a friendship and he becomes "Uncle John" to her. Mycroft also appears and becomes another proxy family member for Mary, as well as Mrs. Hudson. King draws all of these characters into Mary's life in a believable way that stays true to their original spirit. When the major antagonist of the piece shows up it is unexpectedly expected- it makes perfect sense, but it still manages to be a bit surprising.
A few questions that nagged me when I heard the premise were soon smoothed out, such as Holmes' age. This novel starts with him in his early fifties in 1915, according to Doyle's timeline he would have been well into his sixties. Holmes addresses this question of Mary's by telling her he actually went into practice at age 21, but it was reported that he was older because no one trusted such a young detective.
The story does touch on WWI and uses the backdrop of the new era to its advantage. I don't think it would have worked if King had attempted to write such a novel about Holmes during his Baker Street days, especially not with a female apprentice in the late Victorian era.
Due to the memoir style of the book, some passages grow a bit muddled, referencing events out of order, but that is small thing and probably my only criticism of the book
Overall, I'd definitely recommend this book to fans of Sherlock Holmes, I look forward to reading the next book in the series very soon.
Incidentally, apparently today is widely recognized to be the birthday of Sherlock Holmes. I believe ASH and the Baker Street Irregulars have some festivities going on.