My husband scooped this off the shelves, looking for a quality whodunit and enthusiastically recommended it.
1915. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honey bees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs. Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical and recently orphaned, Mary Russell displays an intellect to impress when Sherlock Homes – and match him wit for wit. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protégée and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective.
I’m skipping the rest of the blurb on the grounds that it contains too many spoilers. Have to say, this book didn’t grab me from the first page as it did Himself. Although I enjoyed the sparky relationship between Holmes and Russell, and felt that King’s evocation of the period very impressive, it took me a while to get into the story. Not that I minded all that much – that I was in the hands of a master storyteller was evident from the start. Mary Russell is a convincing young woman and as the book charts her steady maturation from a furious teenager to a talented and formidably focused young woman, the book is as much about her coming of age as it is about a partnership with the world’s most famous detective.
King’s version of Holmes worked. We are very familiar with his clever, difficult character via a number of TV depictions. As a semi-retired gentleman tucked away in rural Sussex, some of his sharper edges have been rounded. Though his impatience with his waning physical powers is well handled, and the eventual shift in their relationship from master/pupil to genuine companion provides the main engine to this book’s narrative.
I enjoyed the view of John Watson as a kind, thoroughly dependable companion, but far too dim to be regarded as anything like Holmes’s equal. This version chimes perfectly naturally with Conan Doyle’s stories in Watson’s viewpoint, it seemed to me. King’s take on World War I from Mary’s viewpoint is also well done. The misery of those back home when confronted with the shattered men returning from the trenches and the constant grind necessary to sustain the war effort is vividly created, adding an interesting layer of social comment on a historically fascinating, rather grim period.
But what of the actual cases Holmes and Russell have to deal with? No matter how good the characterisation, historically accurate backdrop and dialogue – if the whodunit part of this novel isn’t strong enough to sustain the rest, then The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is nothing but a failed homage to one of the greatest literary characters ever invented. Fortunately, this aspect of the book is excellent. Though if you are a fan of wall to wall action, car chases and full-on gory action, then give this book a miss. The slow-burn, steady build-up of a seemingly intractable case with the poring over a handful of clues leading to Holmes’s – and increasingly Russell’s – brilliant deductive leaps that was Conan Doyle’s trademark won’t necessarily satisfy many modern tastes. Despite the fact that this book was first published in 1994, it feels a lot older – a tribute to King’s strong writing and easy familiarity with the character.
Do I have a problem with King using someone else’s character and taking the story in her own direction? Clearly, there are a number of Sherlock fans out there who do. I’m not one of them. King has paid attention to the manner in which Conan Doyle crafted his stories and character and has been respectful of the original, while adding another, additional series of books to the canon. However, I do have a niggle. And it does involve a spoiler – in subsequent books, Holmes marries Russell and given there is a forty year gap between them, I find this whole notion uncomfortable. Particularly as she is only fifteen when they first meet and very damaged. I’m aware that a number of recent unpleasant court cases involving the sexual exploitation of children have made this a far more fraught topic than it would have been back in 1994 when this book was written. But a forty year age gap is big – and given that Holmes has always been depicted as being largely uninterested in women, with most of his energy and taste running to cerebral stimulation, I’m not sure that this works. However, this isn’t an issue with this first book in the series, and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of a really interesting, nuanced read.