The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

“I do not remember when I first realised that the flesh and blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away, and how for several days my own self-awareness became slightly detached, tenuous, as if I too were in the process of transmuting into fiction, by contagion with Holmes.”

I admit to having a misgiving or two going into The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, but Laurie King was easily able to overcome them. Mary Russell is no Mary Sue; she is a well-rounded believable character quite capable of standing on her own two feet who just happens to work closely with a famed detective.

In late 1910s England Russell stumbles across Sherlock Holmes tending his hives. She is a gawky independent teen, but able to match the retired Holmes in intelligence, wit, and chess skills. He takes her on as a protegé and she soon becomes an integral part of investigation. One case, however, pits them against a mastermind who threatens their relationship and even their lives.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is an extremely intelligent book, which seems like it was fun to write but also took a lot of careful thought and research. No detail is insignificant, it seems. King makes the story believable but picking up Holmes after he is retired, so that she can leave the Conan Doyle canon intact and also reference his earlier cases. He is treated as both a literary and historical figure, with Watson having penned the melodramatic accounts  pseudonymously.

The first part of the book is spent on the characters (and reader) getting to know each other, while Mary spends four years learning a variety of minutiae under Holmes’ guidance. Only after she has established herself as a student at Oxford does he slowly allow her to assist him on cases. Everything weaves together seamlessly, however. The sleuths show off their powers of deduction even in training games, and continue to reveal facets of themselves after the novel progresses. Overall I found it to be a very intelligent book, both well-plotted and well-written.

The discussion questions at the end of the book focused on Mary Russell as a feminist for her independence and tendency to prefer the ease of male clothing. Mary tends to think in terms of ability and practicality rather than gender, and sees herself as equal to all the males around her. But it is not pushy feminism, and I probably would not myself have thought to single it out as such though I suppose it was irregular for the times. Rather, the impression is of a strong and confident young woman.

One of my qualms was the romance that seems to be blossoming between the two characters, though separated by forty years. I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m not a fan of May/December relationships (Little Dorrit seemed somehow okay, but it gave me pause in Jane Eyre). There’s somewhat of an ick factor when 15-year-old Mary calls Holmes her surrogate father and 19-year-old Mary falls into his arms, yet on another level it seems okay. Their relationship is not built on lust but on the simple fact that they have become indespensable to each other. They could probably continue on as very close friends, but I can’t really see Mary settling down with anyone else unless he were also her intellectual equal. Which begs the question of whether romantic partners must match in mind as well as temperament, but that’s an issue for another day. (Any books that address this?)

I seem to be reading a lot of books set in WWI England this summer–Atonement, as well as the early Agatha Christies, though the tone is quite different in all of these. The same happened with 1880s Paris. Is it better to cluster books with similar settings like this to get a complete picture, or spread them out so they don’t run together? And does it make a difference if the books are written in that era or merely set then?

This book is for the “profession” category in the What’s in a Name challenge. Halfway there!

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Published in: on August 3, 2009 at 1:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. […] book with a “profession” in its title: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie […]

  2. […] of Maisie training specifically for this job was sometimes reminiscent of Mary Russell in the first of Laurie King’s books. In addition, much time is devoted to Maisie’s service in the war itself. To be honest, WWI is […]


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