Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King

Mary Russell is a (half?) Jewish (half?) American girl who takes up with Sherlock Holmes.  Like him, she is brilliant and unemotional; she becomes his protégé at age fifteen, and they solve cases together.  In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice they run up against a villain more villainous and clever than all the clever villainous villains heretofore encountered by Holmes (he says) (though obviously not because I have heard he got outwitted one time), and they work in tandem to thwart the villainously clever villain.  This did not bother me because I have hardly read any Sherlock Holmes stories (apart from Hound of the Baskervilles) and thus did not have any Holmes canon sensibilities to offend.  On the other hand, I expect there were oodles of things in this book that would have been more fun if I knew the Holmes canon.  I enjoyed this reading experience but did not find it necessary – i.e., I carried it around in my purse for nearly a fortnight before finishing it all the way to the end.

My little sister started watching Doctor Who with me when I was about halfway through the second series.  (Bear with me, it’s an explanatory anecdote.)  She became hooked almost instantly, and after a while, as they will, some Daleks appeared and I screamed “OH NO OH GOD OH NO WHAT WILL HAPPEN EVERYONE WILL DIE!” and Social Sister said, “What what what what?” and I said, “IT IS THE DALEKS!”  A dramatic pronouncement that fell flat because Social Sister had never seen a Dalek before (except in Breakfast on Pluto) and had no idea what they were.

I think The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was a bit like that.  Not having read the Sherlock Holmes books made the book less punchy than (I believe) it could have been.  But I liked Mary, and I shall revisit this series sometime after I have read some more Sherlock Holmes stories.

That’s all I got on the Mary Russell front.  Other things are said by other people, and I would be glad to add your link if I missed it here: A Striped Armchair, Presenting Lenore, Books and Cooks, Today’s Adventure, One Swede Read, Shermeree’s Musings, Age 30 + …A Lifetime of Books, What KT Reads, My Random Acts of Reading, Bogormen

And now for something completely different:

On to a holiday out of which I expect neither Sherlock Holmes nor Mary Russell would get very much: Christmas!  Christmas is coming, everyone!  I know it is because I went to several shops today that had Christmas displays up, and because I sang Christmas songs in my car really loudly.  Oh lovely Christmas, all red-and-greeny and cold (I hope) and full of delicious foods and lovely presents and my enormous family.  To those of you who do not like for Christmas preparations to begin before Thanksgiving, I do not know what to say.  The earlier I think about Christmas, the earlier I am filled with soaring sensations of joy and well-being, so for me, there is no point at all in waiting until after Thanksgiving.

  • I read the entire Sherlock Holmes, years and years ago. But I have nearly forgotten the stories, and I was never crazy about them. So for that, I might enjoy this with some recollections to clue me in, without being miffed at the liberties. Even though I’ve never been too keen on mysteries, I might try this one someday. There’s been some good reviews about it!

    • I think my parents have a complete volume of Holmes stories somewhere in their house. They are both big fans. Maybe this winter when we all go camping, I will bring the Holmes and give it a try.

  • I’d like to read this as I went through a spell of Holmes and Christie mysteries many years ago. I prefer Agatha and Poirot over Holmes.

    But what I really want to do is see the Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr!

    • I so very much want to see the movie with Robert Downey Jr. I love Robert Downey Jr. And although I have not historically been a fan of Jude Law, he looks quite brilliant in the film as well. Yay, I’m so excited!

  • Katy

    You may be right. On the other hand, reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice without having read much Sherlock Holmes may be like watching New Who without having seen Old Who – you don’t get all caught up in “But Daleks aren’t supposed to have FEELINGS!”/”Sherlock Holmes would never take on a precocious fifteen-year-old girl as an apprentice!” I’ve never been a big Sherlock Holmes fan, so I liked Laurie King’s series just fine until I got to The Game, where she rewrites Kipling’s Kim. It’s like – imagine that she takes your very favorite piece of writing by Oscar Wilde, ever, and instead of recognizing it as genuine literature she does a silly pastiche of it that basically treats it as throwaway pop-culture, and also she misinterprets a lot of it and changes the ending.

    Oddly, though, I’ve always thought of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice in connection with Doctor Who, because to me Holmes and Russell look exactly like Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.

    • I probably wouldn’t mind if she took my favorite Oscar Wilde – yeah, I can’t go on with this. I am more a fan of Oscar Wilde’s life than his writing, but you’re right, I’d be well cross if she rewrote something of his without being respectful of it. I’ve never read Kim actually. How does she manage to rewrite it? I feel like borrowing Sherlock Holmes is already enough literary thieving for one author!

      • Katy

        Well, she takes the main character, Kim, who is a boy in the book, and does the same thing with him that she does with Holmes. She comes up with a backstory in which he is a real person and Kipling is just his chronicler, and then puts his twenty-years-older self into the book. All of that annoyed me to start with, because while Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey (who turns up in one of her books) are pretty much common property at this point, Kim is not. He’s not the hero of a mystery series, he’s the main character of a single book that I think is one of the most brilliant books every written. So I don’t think that Laurie King really has the right to use him, but aside from that she also doesn’t do a very good job. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t read the book, but there are details that flatly contradict what Kipling established about the character.

      • Katy

        Oops, I meant, “ever written.” I hate typos.

  • I’ve heard the Laurie King series gets better, and that the first one is only so-so. I don’t have sensibilities about borrowing characters so long as it’s well done. If it’s poorly done then naturally I get annoyed as the author had only done half the thinking in the first place and the marketing people had clearly come over hysterical. I do possess this book, but haven’t yet found it necessary either. 🙂

    • Subsequent ones are better, you say? I thought I had read somewhere that none of the others are as good as the first – which I know is a problem sometimes with ongoing mystery series. I admire your relaxed approach to borrowed characters, as I know if it were a character of whom I was very fond, I would be inclined to get cranky about it. Though now I think of it, I haven’t read all that many books with borrowed characters, so maybe I’m overestimating my reaction to such a thing.

  • The first book of Laurie King’s I read was A Monstrous Regiment of Women. It’s the one that follows The Beekeeper’s Apprentice I think. I fell in love with King’s books based on the title and how she references its allusion. Everything of King’s I have ever read is really about what it means to be a woman of passion and intelligence in a world that thinks that what it means to be a woman is to be a person blind, weak, foolish and prone to hysteria — to paraphrase John Knox.

    I suppose reading Mary Russell’s character through the glass of John Knox is what made those books such a delight for me. I mean Sherlock is a kind of Knox, but one that allows reason to bring him back from paternalism to a more compassionate stance. At least that’s how I read his attraction, resistance and final acceptance of his evolving relationship with Mary. I mean have you ever thought about how he talked about and treated women in the original stories. Stars! He might have been one smart cookie, but I would not have wanted him as a friend. He would have been the kind of guy that would never have responded in kind – everything would have been a one way conversation. Very tiring and deeply boring.

    That’s the thing about what King does, I think. She takes the (problematic) hyper-masculine-rational and makes it (the more felicitous) hyper-human-rational.

    • “He might have been one smart cookie, but I would not have wanted him as a friend.” Haha, I could not possibly agree with this more! I really love the title of the second book – it’s making me want to skip reading the real Sherlock Holmes books and just go ahead and try another Mary Russell.

  • I love all the Mary Russell books, and I say that as a huge fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

    I don’t get too hung up on canon as long as whoever is taking on the character is doing something interesting with them. I’ve read a lot of Holmes pastiches and they have been of variable quality but I always look forward to a new entry in this series (most recent review is here: http://brideofthebookgod.wordpress.com/2009/08/30/the-language-of-bees/)

    And for that reason I am also looking forward to the Robert Downey Jr movie, just to see what it’s like….

    • I enjoyed your reviews! 🙂 Definitely made me want to read more of this series. And yeah, I am curious about where they’re going to go with the Downey film. I’m looking forward to it so much because this has been kind of a slow movie year for me.

  • Yay yay yay yay Christmas! I am so excited to go home to see my family 😀

    • Christmas is wondrous! It cannot possibly come soon enough for me!

  • Merry merriest of Christmas Holiday shenanigans to you. 🙂

    • Thank you! And the same to you!

  • I love Christmas music! That’s my favorite part. Not crazy about the big red ugly santa clauses already on display in the stores, but as long as I can listen to Christmas music (and I can, we started in September) then i’m happy. Merry Christmas to you too!

    • Thank you! Your Christmas music fun is very validating. My sister Bonnie hates it when we start up with the Christmas music early on in the year, but I very very very much love Christmas carols!

  • Eva

    Yay! I think the Mary Russell series definitely gets better over time, because the other novels focus on one mystery, and many are set in other parts of the Empire. 🙂 But I’m not a huge Doyle fan at all-I think I’ve only read 2 or 3 Holmes stories…despite that, the Mary Russell books are some of my very fave mysteries.

    • Shut up. Shut up. Other parts of the Empire? Like in – like in British colonies and ex-colonies all over the place? I’m going to cry. I love other parts of the Empire! But I am probably going to read the Holmes stories too, at least a few of them, to see if I love them better now that I am much older than I used to be.

  • Jenny

    I love the Russell books, too, and I agree that they just keep getting better (though I loved the first one.) They’re good mysteries, but mostly they’re just good about people.

    And by the way, I disagree with Katy that the one about Kim is poorly done. I think Laurie King does it with love, respect, and humor. Her whole series is based on taking liberties with an established literary character, and she does the same with Kim. (Not sure why Katy thinks Lord Peter is common property?) And it’s led me on to read many books about that time and place now, which has to be good! 🙂

    • I’ve never read Kim – I wouldn’t know whether King was dealing with it well or poorly! I’ll add that to the list and give it a read before I get to the other Mary Russell books. 🙂

    • Katy

      Hi, Other Jenny! I may have come off a little hysterical in that post, but Kim is very dear to my heart. Basically, it doesn’t bug me when King uses Holmes, because Holmes is the main character of a series. He was designed to be written about again and again, and at this point so many authors have used him in one way or another that it would be silly to mind Laurie King’s accomplished and respectful pastiche. Lord Peter is a slightly different case. I don’t like the Jill Paton Walsh sequels, partly on principle and partly because I don’t think she does a good job of blending her writing style with Sayers’s. And I would doubtless get very irritated if King were to offer her own take on the events of Gaudy Night, for instance. But the fact is that Lord Peter, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character in a mystery series, and he has been written about by people other than Sayers. So if King can appropriate Holmes, it’s hard to argue that she shouldn’t touch Lord Peter. I don’t mind at all that she gave the young Lord Peter a scene in one of her books, because she does a good job. He’s far more in character in that brief appearance than he is in most of the short stories that Dorothy Sayers actually wrote.

      On to Kim. Kim is not in the same genre as Holmes or Lord Peter, it is not a series, and you don’t find unauthorized sequels to it popping up all over the place. So King is for some reason taking a flying leap out of her chosen genre, and somehow I feel a little squeamish about an author taking the same liberties with a single brilliant late-Victorian novel that get taken regularly with characters like Sherlock Holmes.

      I can’t honestly remember very many specifics, as it’s been several years since I read The Game, but as a random example I do remember being very surprised that she made the agnostic Kim into a devout Buddhist. Kipling puts so much emphasis on Kim’s ability to hold many different cultures and religions in his mind without thoroughly committing to any of them. I suppose it’s possible that growing up, combined with the lama’s death, changed Kim in some fundamental way, and that this is what King was going for, but it seems more likely that she just wasn’t paying attention.

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