A brilliantly entertaining “Not a Sherlock Holmes” novel…

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King

Novels which adopt other authors’ characters can be a bit hit or miss – I think I was the only person who thoroughly enjoyed PD James’s Pride & Prejudice sequel. With the benefit of hindsight, I totally saw it as a continuation of the TV series though, rather than P&P the novel.  So, not having read any of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories properly, I possibly wouldn’t have picked this book up.  I was lucky enough, however, to win a copy from Shelf Love’s blogiversary giveaway last year, and given the BBC’s huge (and justified) success with Sherlock, it was finally time to see what someone else could do with Holmes.  Jenny and Teresa both loved it, friends of mine have read and loved it, so I had high hopes.

Let me get this straight at the start: this is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Mary Russell tells the story.  Holmes gets second billing, and there are minor supporting performances from Mrs Hudson, Dr Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade too.

Mary, at the story’s start in 1915, is just fifteen herself.  Recently orphaned, she is chafing under the guardianship of her penny-pinching aunt, and one morning out walking on the Sussex downs to escape her argumentative relative, she stumbles upon a man whom at first she mistakes for a tramp.  He has been observing bees, and puts her in her place, but mistakes her for a boy.  So insults traded, she reveals her plaits, and then finally realises who she is sparring with – ‘A Legend.’ Holmes has been impressed by the sparky, gawky girl who knows her own mind, and invites her join him for tea.  Thus begins Mary Russell’s apprenticeship to the greatest detective who ever lived, who is not quite ready to retire fully yet.

The opening chapters follow Mary’s education by Holmes, and soon she is off to Oxford as a bluestocking.  Oxford suits her, and she keeps in touch with her mentor.  Visiting back home, she finds that the partnership has its first case which easily solved.  A subsequent visit provides a more substantial challenge which will put Russell in some real danger, in the rescue of the kidnapped daughter of an American senator.  But this is nothing compared with what is to come, when a bomber targets Holmes and Russell and they must solve the crime to save their lives…

Mary & Holmes’s adventures are, first and foremost, great page-turning fun. There’s scarcely time to breathe, so packed is the book with adventure, disguises, deduction, detection, observation, acting, logic, forensics, body language, code-breaking and more – all the tools of the great detective are at Mary’s disposal, and luckily for her, she has been a great pupil for that will save her life again and again.  Blessed with a boyish physique, Mary is the kind of heroine that will throw herself into the game, she’s certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty.

I’ve already admitted that I don’t know the true Holmes well, but by cleverly setting the books after the end of Doyle’s stories and into the start of Holmes’s wind-down into retirement, King gets some leeway to play with. Ditto with the period – starting in 1915, we’re already into WWI, and attitudes to women are having to change, so having a female apprentice is not such an unusual thing.  It’s fair to say, that Holmes would never strike me as a man to accept retirement easily, and having a young person about will help keep him young at heart.  Mary fits seamlessly into Holmes’s circle, even though she is so young.  At first she fits in like a favoured niece, but as she matures into a young woman, this semi-familial bond changes into something more affectionate, and despite the age-gap, you sense a deepening bond …   (9/10)

Thank you to Jenny and Teresa for introducing me to this cracking good read.  I definitely want to read more in the series – there are currently 10, with an 11th to come.  Even more it makes me want to read some of Doyle’s originals to get the real measure of the man who is Sherlock Holmes.

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I received my copy as a gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Mary Russell Mystery 01) by Laurie R King (Allison & Busby paperback, 448 pages).
Sherlock – Series 1 and 2 Box Set [DVD]

18 thoughts on “A brilliantly entertaining “Not a Sherlock Holmes” novel…

  1. Alex in Leeds says:

    Yay for another fan! I must confess that when I decided to pick my own five ‘My Life In Books’ books I chose this as my guilty pleasure. There’s just something so deliciously subversive about loving this version of Holmes and the world that King creates for him on the Downs even when it is brilliantly written and has the tone spot on. 🙂

    • gaskella says:

      Alex, I am now longing to read some more of them when time permits, and to see how their relationship will deepen in particular!

    • gaskella says:

      Thank you for getting me the book! I’m a convert and I’m so glad to hear that the series has legs.

    • gaskella says:

      I’ve only read the first, but I can see that it sets a great foundation for the series to continue.

  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I think I know now after reading your post why I didn’t get on very well with the P D James book – I didn’t really like the P & P TV version!

    I must be feeling awkward, or something because this book too doesn’t appeal. I was put off by the fact that Holmes thought Mary was a boy – I haven’t read it though and the book may be more convincing. But, if I see it in the library or bookshops I’ll have a look at it, based on your recommendation.

    I too haven’t really read any of the Sherlock Holmes books and I keep meaning to do so, particularly after watching Sherlock, which I loved. I think I can cope with TV/film versions if I see them before reading the books.

    • gaskella says:

      Margaret – I loved the TV P&P! (Especially Mr Bennett, Benjamin Whitrow, who is very like my Dad in looks and his Bennett character!)

      With this book, I should have said – she was wearing trousers for tramping the downs, and had her hair up in a cap – thus the boy mistake. You would have thought that Sherlock would see through that instantly – or was he only playing with her? Still it does get better… a lot better. If you see it in the library, why not give it a try?

  3. victoriacorby says:

    This sounds wonderful and I love the cover too – why i don”t think I’ll ever go completely over to a Kindle. There’s such pleasure in looking at a well designed book.

  4. gaskella says:

    In the UK, not all of the book are available in the A&B designs, only the later ones and the first which is annoying, the rest are published by HarperCollins and have very inferior covers, which is a shame.

  5. Falaise says:

    This looks really interesting. There are other authors who’ve had a pop at Holmes, some good and some really bad. Michael Dibdin wrote a very good pastiche and, of course, Antony Horowitz did it too recently. I can also remember one called “Exit Sherlock Holmes” from the ’80s but can’t remember who wrote it. I think Michael Chabon has also done one. This looks interesting because Holmes isn’t the main protagonist. I’ll have to get hold of a copy.

  6. gaskella says:

    I have the Horowitz book on my TBR – it got a great write-up – Have you read it? Just checking I also have the Chabon (The final solution – which has an 89 yr old man who keeps bees).

    Coming back to Laurie King, she has written a e-novella recently telling the story of Russell and Holmes’s meeting from Holmes PoV which could be an interesting …

    • Teresa says:

      The e-novella is fun, and it offers a good explanation of why Holmes might have been taken by surprise that Mary wasn’t a boy.

      I listened to the audiobook of the Chabon and thought it was just OK. It was clever, but I think I was bothered by how coy Chabon was being about the identity of that beekeeper. Either make it less obvious or just say it.

      • gaskella says:

        Teresa, I think I shall be downloading the e-novella … sounds intriguing. Reading this book has whetted my appetite further for all things Holmesian, which reminds me I must re-watch the last Sherlock episode. Thanks again for introducing me to the book.

    • Falaise says:

      I have read the Horowitz book and thought it was excellent – pretty faithful to Conan Doyle but written in a more modern style.

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