Iain's Leisure Reading

Laurie R King - The Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes Series

Well over a year ago, in "The Works" bookshop chain, I chanced upon a series of books by an American author then unknown to me - Laurie R. King. I was intrigued by her concept - it's 1915, and a young 15 year old American orphan by the name of Mary Russell is being looked after by an aunt on a farm in the UK Sussex Downs, goes for a walk, and bumps into none other than the great Sherlock Holmes. I knew from the Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes series that Sherlock had indeed "retired" to the Sussex Downs to tend bees. The books were in a "three for a fiver" offer, so I bought the first three books in the series, and put them on my "books waiting to be read" shelf. I was then reading and enjoying the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I though I had better finish these before looking at what Laurie R King had to say.

Laurie King was born in 1952 in Oakland, California. In 1977 she graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in comparative theology. The same year she married the historian Noel Quinton King, and they had two children, Zoe and Nathan. Sadly Noel died in early 2009. Laurie now lives in Watsonville, still in California.

Laurie is an award winning author who has not only penned the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series, but has also written books under the pseudonym "Leigh Richards".

I think I sort of sit on the fence over the ethics of one author adopting / or is it pinching another author's character. I have enjoyed R.H.Wingfield's DI Frost novels both under the original author, and also as recreated by James Henry. Henry's Frost is less coarse, and more like the character in the UK TV series. On the other hand Sue Grafton , who knew she was dying of cancer, made it clear that she wanted her character Kinsey Millhone to die with her, and I think her wishes should be respected. Obviously, if a well loved character is recreated by another author and trashed, then that is wrong. But perhaps it's OK for a gifted author to recreate another's character if its done well, and sympathetically. As I said, I am not sure.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice     (1994)

I read this book in May, 2018.

It's always exciting to start reading a new book series - will it be fair, average, good, or excellent ? I then knew little of the author Laurie R King, nor her heroine young Mary Russell, but I had been intrigued by the blurb on the back cover. So it's 1915, the great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and studying honey bees on the Sussex Downs, when a 15 year old young women literally stumbles into him. Mary Russell is gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, but she has a keen intellect, a wit to match his own, and she impresses Sherlock. The book sets up the chance encounter very well. Mary has inherited a farm nearby, but she and her guardian aunt do not get on well, and the aunt seems to be trying to starve Mary into submission. Having mistaken Mary for a young lad, a bemused Sherlock invites Mary back for tea, and faithful Mrs Hudson, still looking after Holmes, feeds the famished lass. Sherlock himself has not been bothering with food, but out of politeness he joins in the meal, gets nourished, and finds a new interest in life that he had never contemplated. They seem to be good for each other. And so begins a great, unlikely friendship, but the exact nature of the friendship is unclear. Partly it's teacher / pupil, partly it's father / daughter, but I detected hints, in spite of their age difference, that something stronger than friendship might even be even be a possibility. But I guess I am jumping ahead wildly.

The Sherlock that we meet is true to Conan Doyle's character, but has been updated somewhat, and has a more rounded, caring gentler character. Yes, he is still governed by fierce logic, but he is comforting too when the occasion calls for compassion and understanding. He is in his early fifties, perhaps younger than we might have expected. This is explained as Watson adding years to Sherlock to add gravitas to his stories. We meet Watson also. Watson is presented as the salt of the earth, and a brave and true friend to Sherlock, but a bit bumbling, and only of average intellect. He was always amazed at Holmes feats of logic, but Mary Russell equals Holmes in intelligence and is less dazzled by the great detective. In one section of the book Watson rushes to an in hiding Holmes, and shaves off his moustache so that he will not be recognised and followed, but he carries his doctor's bag through the streets of London - a dead give away. Mary would never make such a mistake.

The book is split into sections as Mary becomes first apprentice to Holmes, and then enters an internship, and then an associate partnership. Holmes sets puzzles for the young Mary, and each one she solves with distinction. Truly, here is a great intellect. Mary develops into young womanhood almost without Holmes noticing. On a joint mission, Holmes is darkening his new assistant's skin as night time camouflage. "Take off your shirt" says Holmes, and unthinkingly Mary starts to comply when Watson coughs, and Holmes realises what he has said - how inappropriate. It is 1918 after all !

Mary hates her aunt who is stealing from her, but Holmes funds young Mary (with Mrs Hudson keeping a tally ) until Mary comes into her inheritance in adulthood, when every last penny will be repaid with interest. Mary goes to Oxord in 1918, studies theology (as did Laurie King), makes new friends, and even has some fun - using disguise techniques learned from Holmes in a famous prank. But Mary and Holmes are soon reunited.

Initially I started off having doubts about this book when I feared it might just be a collection of short stories lacking in depth. It paints a good picture of the place and time - war time London, but I thought perhaps Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books did it better. But when Mary and Sherlock embark on longer adventures the book improves impressively. Holmes creates a diversion, and Mary has enough self confidence to deviate from the plan, and rescue a kidnapped American senator's very young daughter. Mary has suffered in childhood too, and is later able to comfort the upset little girl in a sisterly sort of way. The brilliant master mind behind the kidnap plot sets out to get revenge on Holmes and Mary, and seems so familiar with Holmes thinking that Holmes is being bettered. Holmes and Mary decide on a tactical retreat and escape the country with help from Mycroft Holmes. Whilst abroad Mary and Sherlock work on a project of national importance. From a list of possible bolt holes, Mary had chosen Palestine. We learn that Mary is a Jew, and she is greatly moved to be able to walk the holy lands. She quotes Hebrew scripture, sings a Hebrew poem that perfectly fits the occasion, and Holmes is struck by his new assistant's hidden depth. Laurie King returns to their adventures in the Holy Land in a later book O Jerusalem < this link won't work until I have read the book !

It's part of Holmes' plan to return to the UK and unmask the master mind, that Holmes and Russell quarrel violently and publicly and say some very harsh, wounding words to each other. In private, Mary is so ill, confused and distraught by the cruel words Sherlock hurls at her, that Holmes secretely slips into her cabin to sit there for a few minutes each night as a comforting presence for Mary. It's becoming deeper than just friendship. Earlier in their exile Holmes and Mary had played chess, and Mary had bested Holmes by sacrificing a White Queen, to mount an overlooked pawn checkmate attack. "You sometime have to sacrifice the Queen to win the game", Mary explains. Holmes goes pale at the alternative explanation of what Mary has said - has Mary to be sacrificed ?

I think I have said enough - it's never my intension to write a spoiler. All in all, a very interesting and promising start to this new series - I hope Laurie King can sustain it.

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