Synopsis (Courtesy of GoodReads)
In 1915, long since retired from his crime-fighting days, Sherlock Holmes is engaged in a reclusive study of honeybees on the Sussex Downs. Never did the Victorian detective think to meet an intellect matching his own–until his acquaintance with Miss Mary Russell, a young twentieth-century lady whose mental acuity is equalled only by her penchant for deduction, disguises, and danger.
Under Holmes’s reluctant tutelage, Russell embarks on a case involving a landowner’s mysterious fever and the kidnapping of an American senator’s daughter in the wilds of Wales. Then a near-fatal bomb on her doorstep–and another on Holmes’s–sends the two sleuths on the trail of a murderer who scatters bizarre clues and seems utterly without motive. The villain’s objective, however, is quite unequivocal: to end Russell and Holmes’s partnership–and then their lives.
I've had half an eye on this series for a while now but was a little dubious about it at the same time. Sherlock Holmes is so iconic that playing around with the characters and the stories with which so many people are familiar is always a risky business. Then it appeared in an eBook sale for £1.99 and my arm was twisted. Fortunately, King blends just the right amount of the traditional with the new and creates something that is really rather good.
The opening is a little strange and sets up an unnecessary "Oh, look at these manuscripts I have found in this random abandoned trunk - it looks as though they are telling stories about Sherlock Holmes" premise. Since the rest of the book is told very strongly in Mary Russell's voice, I just don't see the point of starting out on such a weak note. If you pick this up and are put off by the first chapter or so, just ignore it. It's not referred to again so you wouldn't be missing anything at all by skipping it entirely (which is not something that I would usually condone).
So, characters. A lot of them are obviously familiar - as well as Sherlock Holmes, there are also cameos by Dr Watson and Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes. Each of them is subtly different to the "originals", though, which didn't bother me because it works and means that King is free to develop her story without trying to stick too rigidly to the Conan Doyle's outline. The obvious key addition is Mary Russell. I loved Mary. I read one review that criticised her as "too intelligent" - you're reading a book about Sherlock Holmes! Genius is the whole point! She stands up to Sherlock Holmes in a way that doesn't make her seem petty and ridiculous because she's so intelligent. Watching an idiot verbally spar with him would just be embarrassing. She also has a quite sarcastic sense of humour that has her challenging her male counterparts with style. That reads as though I have a bit of a girl crush on her, actually, doesn't it...?
The plot wasn't quite what I was expecting but it was a nice surprise. From the afternoon that Mary trips over Sherlock Holmes while walking and reading at the same time (a feat of co-ordination I will not be attempting!), they strike up a friendship that morphs into an apprenticeship and eventually into partnership. As Mary is learning from the master, she ends up solving petty crimes and smaller mysteries in her local area under Holmes' watchful eye. An over-arching mystery does materialise though, with some neat links to earlier events that keep it from being too much like a series of random events. Because I am a nerd, I liked reading about the methods of detection and watching the characters and their relationships develop but those of you looking for a more traditional mystery story with just one cheeky villain might be a little frustrated by all of the meandering.
In amongst the fake beards, rogues and adventuring, there is also some lovely writing. Mary's narration is completely charming and King has done a really remarkable job of ageing her as the story goes - the tone of the early chapters is that of a precocious teenager and it gradually grows in maturity throughout Mary's time at Oxford University and beyond. Younger Mary and Sherlock Holmes banter about in a witty and entertaining fashion, while mature-Mary is a little more introspective and serious:
"The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood. The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter. With us will go our memories."
[Page 12 in my eBook copy]
Oh, and the more eagle-eyed Sherlock Holmes fans might be wondering how he has managed to retire to keeping bees in the country after the ending of The Final Solution. It is mentioned and explained after a fashion but the explanation isn't particularly substantial so if you're prone to finding such things irritating, you have been warned :)
Overall: So far there are 12 books in this series, all of which I will hunt down and devour happily if they are as good as this one. The Beekeeper's Apprentice maybe won't sit well with devout Sir Conan Doyle fans but if you can stand to look slightly differently at the famous detective and his friends and family, you're in for a treat.
Date finished: 14 October 2012
Genre: Detective fiction; crime/mystery fiction
Pictured edition published: by Allison & Busby in June 2010 (Originally published in 1994)
If you're feeling in the mood for something a little more traditional, my thoughts on the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet can be found here