Thursday, 6 December 2007

Laurie R. King: The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994)

Published: HarperCollins, 2000

The number of novels which have purported to be lost Sherlock Holmes stories is immense, many times more pages than make up "the canon", as Holmes fanatics denote the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle. Like most literary pastiches, few of these can be said to be worth reading. Definitely forming part of this small minority are the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King, of which this is the first.

Mary Russell, at the start of the novel, is an intellectual fifteen year old, studying while walking across the Sussex Downs during the First World War. She is concentrating so hard that she almost steps on a man watching bees. In the ensuing conversation, it becomes clear that she has met Sherlock Holmes himself, retired into Sussex to take up beekeeping (a detail taken straight from "the canon"). Impressed by her intelligence, Holmes takes Mary under his wing, and begins to train her in his investigative methods, culminating in a shared investigation into concerted attempts to kill Holmes.

King is rather cavalier in her attitude to the canon when it suits her, though this and others of her novels (not all in this series) indicate that she knows it extremely well. The most obvious deviation is in the age of Holmes, who becomes about a generation younger than Doyle makes him, which would make him barely out of his teens in the earliest stories. (This change, Holmes tells Mary, was made so that readers of Watson's tales would take the detective seriously.) From King's point of view, this change makes the novel and its successors possible, as Holmes is now in early middle age rather than in his late sixties when he meets Mary. This alone might put off Holmes purists, but King goes on to make more subtle but far-reaching changes: not so much from the facts of the canon, but to the character of Holmes himself.

Doyle's original Holmes is cold and analytical, with quirks such as the violin playing added to give a certain amount of humanity to what is essentially a detecting machine. King changes this slightly, rejecting the attributes which are not so acceptable today (drug addiction, and a modified attitude to women) and deepens the character farther, in a rather more convincing way. But he is not the Sherlock Holmes that fans have known for over a century, even if he can still distinguish the different types of cigar ash left by criminals. Clearly, she wants to buy into the Holmes background without the encumbrances of the original character; if this is a problem, then this novel and the series as a whole is not for you. I personally am in two minds about it; I like the way that others have taken the same characteristics rejected by King and made them the peg on which to hang their own re-interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (such as Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution), but on the other hand, King's character makes for a more rounded novel and makes her ideas possible - in particular, the relationship with Mary Russell.

Ignoring the questionable nature of the Mary Russell series' relationship with the Holmes canon, The Beekeeper's Apprentice and its sequels are satisfying crime novels in their own right.