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The Beekeeper's Apprentice, 1994
A genial idea inspires this pleasant detective story, which Laurie King has since developed into a 4-novel series: why not provide Sherlock Holmes with a worthy assistant just as astute and observant as the great man himself? Indeed, why not go boldly on (in the subsequent books) and saddle the misogynist bachelor with an intellectual equal for a wife? Enter Mary Russell, a precocious 15-year-old who stands no nonsense from anyone. The two destinies and personalities collide during a casual encounter on the Sussex Downs where the jaded Holmes, more or less in retirement, passes the time keeping bees, performing experiments, and writing little monographs on technical aspects of detection. The immediate but prickly meeting of minds leads to an unusual friendship and Holmes, in his early fifties, soon finds himself in the unexpected position of mentor to a tall teenager with a feminist philosophy, who likes to dress in trousers and sees no reason why she can't become as expert as her authoritative teacher in all facets of his craft.
Laurie King neatly grafts her only superficially outrageous expansion of the classic Holmes canon onto the sturdy roots planted by Conan Doyle and constructs her detectives' cases in much the same style. The ostensible narrator is Mary Russell herself, via the device of having the secret memoirs of her youth anonymously delivered to a bewildered present-day author/editor. The first book in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, is set during the first World War and describes Mary's rapid progress through a series of increasingly complex conundrums under Holmes' demanding tutelage until, in a few years, she seeks and achieves full partnership with him.
And Dr. Watson? King portrays him as an amiable bumbler whose accounts of Holmes' earlier adventures are not entirely accurate and whose sleuthing ineptness is regarded by Mary with disdain, but who quickly wins her approval by his unaffected kind-heartedness and dedicated loyalty to his eccentric friend. Watson, in turn, views Mary as a positive influence, a breath of fresh air, whose stimulating presence reawakens the depressed Holmes' interest in life and good health, saving him from stagnation and a potentially dangerous addiction to cocaine.
Addressing one another as Holmes and Russell in forthright manly style, the unlikely couple settles into a relationship of constant mutual intellectual challenge. Mary's powers of observation and reasoning are exhaustively tested, never failing to satisfy Holmes' strict standards. Their first joint case is a mundane affair involving the theft of some hams and a cash-box from the local inn; under Holmes' amused supervision, Mary proceeds successfully to identification of the culprit, whereupon Holmes confidently includes her on a more serious mission. A nearby landowner, privy to government secrets, has been suffering mysterious bouts of illness that his wife suspects are due to poisoning; Mary and Holmes swiftly get to the bottom of the affair and unmask a spy passing information to the Germans.
The last problem which sees Mary confined to a subordinate role is the kidnapping of an American senator's daughter during a camping-trip in Wales. Posing in heavy disguise as a pair of gypsies, Holmes and Russell scour the territory and track the criminals to their lair. Here Mary distinguishes herself by seizing the initiative. Charged only with studying what goes on in an isolated rural house while Holmes creates a diversion in the road, Mary sees a chance actually to get inside, free the child, and spirit her away. Should she be insubordinate and exceed her orders? Yes! And later Holmes agrees that she was right to take immediate advantage of an opportunity that might not be repeated. Their triumphant resolution of this case marks the end of Mary's apprenticeship.
But the episode has an ominous sequel. The unknown master-mind behind the kidnapping escaped identification and capture. Now this mysterious criminal begins to persecute Holmes and Mary with menacing harassments, leaving a trail of enigmatic clues. Plotting to confound their adversary by incomprehensible behaviour of their own, the detectives decide to vanish temporarily-- a plan that leads to the most unusual sequence in the novel: a clandestine, adventurous "vacation" in Palestine, during which the two become even more spiritually inseparable than before.
The harmony of Mary's intense relationship with Holmes is strained when they return to England and decide to feign estrangement to put their enemy further off stride. The ploy works, and Mary begins to unravel the mystery of their foe's identity: none other than the vengeful daughter of the infamous Professor Moriarty, whom Holmes had unmasked in one of his most famous past cases. The ensuing confrontation is dramatic. Mary takes a gunshot wound while saving the situation and withdraws psychologically from the partnership for a time. Yet as she heals, so too does her devotion to her bee-keeping friend, and the end of the story finds them ready and willing for Laurie King's future installments.
© Wordreign, September 1999
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