King, Laurie R.: (01-04) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; A Monstrous Regiment of Women; A Letter of Mary; The Moor

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.

17 Comments

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  1. I considered reading these some time back, at the urging of a long-ago roommate, but the Holmes-romance factor just turned me off. ‘Cause like you say, ick. Holmes is many things, but a romantic figure, not so much.

  2. It’s not just Holmes as a romantic figure but a romantic figure to the woman he was a surrogate father figure to in her teens and whose education he molded. Ick.

    If you skipped the second you could probably pretend it hadn’t happened, but with the Watson stuff it’s probably not worth it for you.

  3. Oh, geez. That makes it even worse. Super-ick!

  4. Yeah, I do my best to pretent it didn’t happen.

    I should really look into some of King’s other books.

  5. Don’t ever read something called _Daddy Long Legs_, then. Well meant young-adult book from the 30s… where, well, he molds her education and then they fall in love.

    Sadly, I loved it as a kid. Not so much now.

  6. I read _Apprentice_ on my Father’s recommendation (insistence, actually, he foisted the book on me this spring), and found the Mary Sue-ness more than slightly overwhelmin. I really, truly enjoyed the way she depicted Holmes, but Watson’s representation was a damn shame, and Russell herself was, as mentioned, not my cuppa.

    Would it be doable, do you think, to skip _Monstrous_ for the less Romance oriented sequels?

  7. Other Kate–I’m sure it’s possible to do the mentor-romance well, but this wasn’t it.

    Skwid–if you don’t like Russell, I don’t think the rest are going to work for you.

  8. (Hit send too soon–)

    But they stand alone well enough that you could try the others, if you wanted.

  9. I think the non-Russell King title you want to try is Folly. Or possibly A Darker Place. Both are completely lacking in Mary Sue-ness and great mood pieces, (although her endings do sure seem to get bundled up in a hurry, as if page count was reached and it’s time to put away the toys and go home). Or you could wait for her SF-genre debut: Califia’s Daughters.

  10. Kathy–thanks for the recommendations, I wasn’t sure where to start her non-Russell/Holmes books.

  11. Meanwhile, I’ll put in a plug for the first book in King’s other series, _A Grave Talent_, about a series of particularly unpleasant child murders which sends San Francisco detective Kate Martinelli into a sort of back-to-nature commune in Northern California. It’s distinctly different from the Mary Russell books – in addition to not having a Holmes to shack up with, this is a far less cozy affair – and quite enjoyable. There are three Martinelli books after this one, all of which I liked, though not as much. Kathy, I hadn’t yet gotten around to King’s non-series books, but I’ll definately track them down based on your recommendation.

    Phil

  12. Phil, Kate: I love the Kate Martinellis as well, but you can see in the first two that King’s still learning her way. Unfortunately, it looks as if she’s stopped writing them altogether. BTW, her website‘s a good resource.

    I suppose I’m not squicked so much by the Holmes/Russell relationship, simply because I know that King married a man more than twenty years her senior, and she knows whereof she writes; also that she resolutely keeps the “romance novel” elements offstage, as much as possible. And however weak the Wimsey cameo was, it was still more enjoyable than anything Paton Walsh did.

    As for the Gaudy Night-tribute genre, I’d add Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog to the list (which btw, has a King cover quote on the paperback edition. Helped me hand-sell it to someone next to me in line at a King signing who “never read science fiction”. heh heh heh).

  13. Kathy: I refuse to read the Paton Walshs, so I can’t compare.

    (I read a really medicore book last night which had an obvious Lord Peter substitute as a Mage! They’re everywhere.)

    I know that King married a man more than twenty years her senior, and she knows whereof she writes

    It’s not the age difference, it’s the mentor/molding thing that bothers me, but the less I think about it the happier I am. =>

    Thanks for the rec of To Say Nothing of the Dog–I’ll have to bump it up on the list.

  14. Wise wise Kate–my reading of “Thrones, Dominations” only finished due to horrified fascination of how very bad it was. I can rant for 20 minutes on the misuse of the Canary quote, alone. 🙂

    To Say Nothing of the Dog took forever to work its way up to the top of my pile, because I was determined to read Jerome K. Jereome’s Three Men in a Boat before cracking the cover. And it was certainly worth it.

  15. 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?
    Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.
    BTW, may I assume that your distaste for the guardian-to-lover arc ruins Patricia Wrede’s homage to Kim for you?

  16. Yes, _A Civil Campaign_, though alas it also falls into the category of “that aren’t as good.” Which so far overlaps 100% with “in obvious tribute.”
    As for Wrede’s book: nope. The age difference and father-figure nature are very much less.

  17. My personal reaction to _ACC_ was that the primary romance plot (minus the preposterous SPOILER fiasco) was quite well done, but that the surrounding subplots were weak and sketchily executed. And the SPOILER itself was just too Brady Bunch for me; I really loathe the humor of embarrassment. Butter bugs need not apply.
    But I go back and skim through for the Miles/Ekaterin scenes fairly regularly, FWIW.

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