|One of Sydney Paget’s illutsrations for Arthur Conan Doyle’s
Sherlock |Holmes stories , showing Holmes (right) and
A book featuring Sherlock Holmes living in retirement in rural Sussex, keeping bees, and taking as his apprentice a stroppy, super-intelligent, American girl of 15, sounds bonkers, especially when you realise is set firmly in the 20th century. It won’t work, I thought. It can’t work. But, amazingly, it does work, and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King is very good indeed.
King is a very intelligent writer, who has researched her period (the action mostly takes place during the First World War) and knows her Holmes – the plot is the equal of anything written by Conan Doyle, and is a real nail-biting affair, but I’ll try not to give too much away. The story is recounted by orphaned Mary Russell, who is 15 when she first meets Holmes. Feisty, and independent, her quick wit and intelligence are a match for Holmes’ own mental powers. The pair form an unlikely friendship, and gradually he teaches her about his methods of deduction, and explains the art of disguise (she spends a lot of time dressed as a young lad). Together they solve a case where four hams and the day’s takings are stolen from a local pub, find the cause of a landowner’s mysterious illness, rescue the kidnapped daughter of an American senator.
But there are more serious matters afoot: Holmes is injured when a bomb explodes in a beehive, and Mary, who is now studying at Oxford, also find her life is threatened. As the two sleuths embark on a chase to find who is responsible, their adversary always seems to be one step ahead, but when they finally discover the identity of their attacker a shocking secret is uncovered, revealing hidden links with an old enemy. The story is fast paced with plenty of action, moving from the Sussex Downs to Oxford, London, the isolated Welsh countryside, and Palestine. However, there’s enough mental puzzling to keep you guessing about the outcome, as well as a plethora of quotes and allusions on a range of topics, including religion, mathematics and philosophy.
Mrs Hudson is there, housekeeping for Holmes as she did at 221b Baker Street, and Dr Watson puts in an appearance, older and stouter than he was, but still given to drawing the wrong conclusion. Holmes’ brother Mycroft, his high-level political connections as mysterious ever, also has a key role to play, but Inspector Lestrange, from Scotland Yard, has been replaced by his son, who works alongside Holmes.
Oddly enough, Holmes’ retirement to the country, is not as ridulous as it initially sounds. As far as the bees go, studying their behaviour patterns and social structure would, I think, provide a perfect interest for Holmes with his obsessive eye for detail and accuracy. It is, somehow, in keeping with his character. And the move to a cottage in the country is just as plausible if you believe the aging detective has become disillusioned with humanity. But as the book progresses it becomes obvious that he is still called on to solve crimes and that he also undertakes some kind of covert intelligence work.. His mental faculties are as strong as they were, he is still a master of disguise, his network of spies and informants is as reliable as ever, and his ‘bolt holes’ provide a safe hideaway at a moment’s notice – which made me wonder if his ‘retirement’ is just a ruse enabling him keep a low profile. King makes him more humane than he appears in Conan Doyle’s stories, but manages to preserve the original characterisation, whilst altering it in a credible way – after all, people do change over the years.
I don’t always like prequels or sequels written by authors themselves, let alone those penned by other writers, but I make an exception for this. I really enjoyed it, and it left me wanting to read the rest of the series.