Mary Russell Mysteries 1 : The Beekeeper's Apprentice


Laurie King


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 3, 2008

he Beekeeper in the title of this novel is Sherlock Holmes. Laurie King imagines that he has retired to the countryside in the early 20th century. It is the time of World War I, most of England's attention is focused on the war on the continent. A young orphaned girl named Mary Russell lives with her aunt in western England, next to Holmes' cottage. Mary is a brilliant and observant young girl, her intelligence impresses Holmes when they have a chance meeting. The 50 year old man and teenage girl become friends. Inevitably, Mary Russell learns from the master detective how he approaches cases, and naturally, she gets involved.

I was disappointed by this book. I thought there would be a lot more criminal catching and keen detective observations. But King decided to focus most of her novel on the relationship between Holmes and Russell. The big crime that is the center of the plot doesn't even get introduced until half way through the book, and even then it seems secondary to the Russell/Holmes dynamic. There is a long digression to Palestine that has nothing to do with catching the villian, I thought this side trip to the Middle East really slowed the narrative. I guess the jaunt was to allow Mary and Sherlock to spend some quality time together so that Laurie King could write about the developing personal interaction between the pair, but I think the pacing suffered.

One of the big clues in the novel is a coded message that the perpetrator leaves for Holmes at the scene of the crime - it is a series of knife slashes in cloth that spell out a bunch of Roman numerals. This strikes me as an unlikely way to leave a message - if the cloth were slightly displaced, wouldn't all the slash marks be jumbled and the message lost? If Russell and Holmes CAN figure out the code, then the villian will be instantly unmasked, so why leave any message at all? Or perhaps the villain should have left a series of slashes that are complete gibberish, just to throw Holmes off the scent? And what villain has time to make a series of precise knife slashes in middle of an intense escape scene? The plot in this book relies much too heavily upon the bad guys trying to outsmart Holmes. Not only must the bad guys defeat Holmes, but they want Holmes to know that they have won. When Russell and Holmes come under observation by a network of spies, why not enlist some of Mycroft's men to follow the spies? It would seem like an easy thing to try.

Unfortunately, at the climax, King has a long section devoted to the bad guy explaining to Holmes and Russell all their mis-steps and how they were outsmarted. Sure, this gloating narrative clears up a lot of plot details and answers some mysteries, but does anyone in the real world find it necessary to explain their deeds to their nemesis? This happens frequently in novels and movies, but it just doesn't ring true to me, it is a plot device from a beginning author. I know this is the first book in the Mary Russell novels, but I thought Laurie King had written other novels before this one.

King does paint a nice portrait of Russell, and especially Sherlock Holmes. They come across as likeable, believable characters. I will probably read the next book in this series in the hope that the pair are given a more substantial case to solve - more detecting and less about the Holmes / Russell relationship.