I didn’t read the first four of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, and The Moor, all back-to-back, but as I’m catching up on the book log, I might as well talk about them all at once.
I picked up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice one day when I was tired and in the mood for something Mary Sue-ish. I prefer the definition of “Mary Sue” [*] that automatically excludes anything well-written, but well-written things can still scratch that wish-fulfillment itch, and this did so admirably. As the book opens in 1915, Mary Russell is a tall, rich, half-American feminist teenaged orphan with a Dark Past; she very nearly trips over a retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs, and he ends up training her to be his partner in detection and, eventually, wife (and if you think that’s a little icky, you’re not alone). Oh, and she’s got aim that a hobbit would envy too, but I don’t think she has violet eyes or anything. (The book does get points for not lingering on her horrible guardian, I admit.)
[*] If you’ve yet to encounter this concept, exhaustive discussion can be found at Making Light.
While Russell and Holmes eventually get married, romance does not intrude on The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which is a very good thing because thematically it’s about daughters and their journey from pawns to queens. As an opening book, it needs to establish Russell’s training and her growth into a detective, which makes it somewhat episodic; however, it’s tied together pretty well by the theme. Some of the changes that King rings on the Holmes canon are interesting, using where necessary the idea that Doyle was Watson’s literary agent and editor. One that deserves special mention, however, is Russell’s attitude toward Watson, which infuriated me and has apparently infuriated many others: it’s both condescending and inconsistent, which is fairly impressive, but then she is a bit of a snot sometimes.
And it’s really the distinctive narrative voice, occasional snottiness and all, that pulls me through these. The framing story is that various manuscripts were sent to Laurie King, who published them after signing enormous waivers with her publishers. According to the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of Beekeeper’s, Russell is writing her memoirs in the late 1980s and early 1990s:
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. My sense of humour provided the pinch that woke me, but it was a very peculiar sensation while it lasted.
Now, the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.
Amusing, it is way. And now, men and women are writing actual novels about Holmes, plucking him up and setting him down in bizarre situations, putting impossible words in his mouth, and obscuring the legend still further.
Why, it would not even surprise me to find my own memoirs classified as fiction, myself relegated to cloud-cuckoo-land. Now there is a delicious irony.
If nothing else, King has her own sense of irony. I will also be interested to see where if anywhere King takes this framing device; there are odd and somewhat improbable hints in the third book, but nothing in the fourth.
A note about editions: I initially got a trade paperback of this book, thinking it was all that was available. It isn’t and there’s a perfectly good mass market available, much more satisfactory than the too-large, too-floppy, too-expensive trade. If anyone is unbothered by that kind of thing and would like mine, just ask; I have the mass-market now and the trade is free to a good home.
(I’ve seen various editions of books in the series headed as “a novel of suspense featuring Sherlock Holmes and his partner Mary Russell,” as well as the other way ’round. I much prefer another option I’ve seen, “featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.” The part about “novel of suspense” is fairly accurate, though.)
The second book in the series is A Monstrous Regiment of Women, which suffers badly from wanting to be Gaudy Night and failing miserably. It’s partly an Oxford book, has a tight community of women, and is largely taken up with Russell trying to figure out what to do about Holmes romantically. However, the book’s structure makes it a pale shadow at best: not only does it set up false choices for Russell, it then deliberately takes them away from her! The ending is also rushed and insufficiently explained, and overall there’s very little detecting. Also, I don’t particularly care for “love at first sight” romances, which this turns out to be on one side at least (and which increases the “ick” factor mentioned earlier). At least this is offset by Holmes having stopped calling her “Russ,” every instance of which in Beekeeper’s made my hands twitch as though they were going to throw the book across the room.
(I’m starting to wonder if this is a subgenre, books written in obvious tribute to Gaudy Night. Besides this, there’s Carla Kelly’s Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career; what else?)
I went into the third, A Letter of Mary, wondering how the Holmes/Russell marriage was going to be portrayed. Fortunately, the martial side of their partnership is largely off-stage or even not so different from their previous state—which frankly makes me wonder why romance had to be introduced at all, but now we’re getting into my pet peeves. The book opens with a major theological revelation, a letter from Mary Magdalene referring to herself as an Apostle. It then resolutely and purposefully ignores the theological for the mundane, which is something of a disappointment. Once past that, however, this is a reasonably good mystery.
(This is also the book with the Lord Peter Wimsey cameo, which alas seems forced.)
The fourth book in the series, and my last to date, is The Moor, or what I think of as The Hound of the Baskervilles—The Unauthorized Sequel: we’re back in Dartmoor, folkloric dogs are being seen, and something nasty is afoot . . . . (If there was any doubt that what we have here is legal fanfic, The Moor would easily dispell it.) I liked this quite a lot. Doyle (or Watson) was writing for an audience that presumably knew about Dartmoor, while King (or Russell) is writing for an audience that can’t be presumed to have such knowledge. As a result, I got a much clearer idea of the geography and a lovely sense of place, really very evocative. As a mystery, it works pretty well, though I have a few qualms about whether it’s too derivative of The Hound of the Baskervilles. At any rate, it was a good place to leave Russell and Holmes for a while (the next two books are kind of a set, and I haven’t got to them yet, and the most recent is only out in hardcover).
If I had discovered these when I was younger, I probably would have fallen completely in love, daydreamed about being Russell, that kind of thing (Beekeeper is copyright 1994, which is probably just on the edge of my suspectibility). While that’s no longer a real possibility, they’re still good reads and only slightly guilty pleasures.