I’m exactly at the half-way mark of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and there are a great many thoughts crowding my mind!
First off, I haven’t read any of the original Holmes so will not be able to comment on how Ms King’s efforts compare to the original. However, Ms King has mentioned that these are Mary Russell stories more than Sherlock Holmes stories so I doubt the series is a pastiche.
The first half of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice deals with the development of Mary Russell from a young girl to a young woman and with the development of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell which evolves from mentor-protégé to one that is more a partnership of equals.
The story begins with a chance encounter between Holmes and Russell where Holmes’ wonderment at Russell’s keen deductive skills, “My God, it can think” is met with “My God, it can recognize another human being when it’s hit over the head with one,” from Russell.
This very first encounter sets the tone for the rest of the story, establishing Mary Russell as an equal of Sherlock Holmes if not in experience then certainly in intelligence. Russell is gawky with a hawk-like eye for details. She’s unapologetic about her intelligence and brilliant at deduction. She catches Holmes’ interest fair and square. In Mary Russell, Ms King creates a heroine who to quote Ms King herself, “I wish I had when I was twelve or fourteen.”
My only knowledge of Sherlock Holmes comes from Benedict Cumberbatch who portrays the great detective in BBC One’s excellent Sherlock. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a somewhat cold-blooded man in pursuit of a single-minded goal as he goes about solving each case. Ms King’s Sherlock is one in retirement, a man in his mid-fifties who has given up active sleuthing. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because he finally meets a mind that can more than hold its own with him (in their very first encounter there’s a scene where Holmes murmurs, “Twenty years ago… Even ten. But here? Now?” A later scene helps us understand the cryptic utterance – Holmes was marveling at fate’s irony in sending him a mind that he could train only once he’s in retirement), Ms King’s Holmes is not a complete misanthrope. There is a streak of humanity in him that gives the reader a pause and look at him with a sort of affection.
Reading the first half of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice one could very well wonder at the absence of mystery in the very first book of a purportedly ‘mystery series’. Certainly, prima facie The Beekeeper’s Apprentice does not seem to belong to the canons of the mystery genre. However, in my opinion Ms King seems to be laying the groundwork for the mysteries to come by giving the reader the front row seat to the growth and development of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ relationship with her. Ms King starts her series with the character development of two protagonists who hook the reader’s interest right from the start and makes one want to see them through to the end of their story.
Indeed ‘the game’s afoot’ earnestly as the second half begins, with a grave and perilous threat looming over Holmes’ and Russell’s head:
I can hardly call the adventure that began at the end of that term a ‘case,’ for the only clients were ourselves, the only possible payment our lives. It burst upon us like a storm, it beat us and flung us about and threatened our lives, our sanity, and the surprisingly fragile thing that existed between Holmes and myself.
I don’t know what malady is slowly approaching but the foreboding in those words has ensured that I’m at the edge of my seat.
P.S. I wanted to talk about Ms. King’s absolute and utter gift with descriptions but my itch to return to the story means that it will have to wait for the review that’ll come at the end of the book!