I just finished The Beekeeper’s Apprentice today. Laurie King’s novel is a bit difficult to classify: I’m not sure if I should call it a mystery, a historical fantasy, young adult fiction, or something else. Her protagonist is Mary Russell, a teenager in Sussex, England during the first World War. Ms. Russell meets the retired Sherlock Holmes, and finding herself presented with a mind as sharp as her own, becomes a sort of apprentice to the master criminologist.
Under normal circumstances, I really dislike the use of an existing literary character by another author, particularly when it’s one I know and love so well. I came across a glowing recommendation of the Mary Russell series on a blog recently (I think it was either feministing.com or Salon.com’s Broadsheet, but I can’t find the link now), and since I was embarking on a whole stack of pleasurable holiday reading, I added the first book of the series to the pile. Given my prejudices, I was mostly expecting to be irate from the get-go, but I was surprised. Mary Russell is that somewhat implausible character of fiction – orphaned, wealthy, brilliant , well-spoken and determined; but she is also well-written and likable. Sherlock Holmes as written by Laurie King is surprisingly intact (mostly). He’s lost something of his famed misogyny, obviously, since he’s taken on a teenage girl as an apprentice, but King navigates that neatly by setting Mary up as the first intellectual equal Holmes has ever encountered (apart from his brother, Mycroft, and his notorious nemesis Professor Moriarty). He’s intrigued and challenged, and pursues the friendship in spite of himself.
The mystery plot is ordinary, but it held my interest. There were a couple of spots where a contemporary turn of phrase or coy literary device were jarring, but I have to say I didn’t really care. As a feminist hero, Mary Russell is something of a treat, and I had a really good time reading this. Two thumbs up.