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24th June
2010
written by Steph

One thing that I love about the book blogging world is that it helps me discover so many books that I never would have stumbled across on my own. Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series is definitely an example of this. Prior to blogging I had never heard of these books, even though: a) I love cozy British mysteries that set during the turn of the 20th century (an extremely specific niche, I realize!); and b) the series has been around since the mid-90s, so I had plenty of time to find it on my own. For those who are unfamiliar with the idea behind the series, the premise is that Sherlock Holmes (yes, I do mean THE Sherlock Holmes) has retired to the English countryside where fifteen-year old Mary stumbles upon him (quite literally) while out for a morning walk (with Virgil on hand). Holmes soon realizes that Mary has a rather uncommon mind, one that is nearly as observant and shrewd as his own, and the two soon strike up a friendship. Holmes takes Mary under his wing, tutoring her in the art of detection and setting small tests for her to solve in order to keep her mind sharp. Together they tackle and solve a few innocuous mysteries at hand, but soon the stakes are raised when Holmes is called to consult on a prominent kidnapping case. Even that, however, is but a rudimentary primer for the next conundrum they face… one where their very lives hinge upon them discovering the culprit who lurks in the shadows and is clearly out for blood. In the past I’ve not been entirely convinced (or necessarily impressed) by authors’ needs to reappropriate characters first launched by another’s pen. Normally I would prefer for an author to present me with something entirely of his or her own doing, and I suppose in many respects I’m one of those people who tends to prefer to stick to canon (for example, I am fairly disgusted at this point by the myriad of Jane Austen sequels and what have you that get churned out on a regular basis. Quite honestly, not a month goes by at BookPage where I don’t see at least two new Jane Austen inspired novels… needless to say, these are rarely if ever the ones I recommend we cover!). In a similar, but perhaps more relevant, vein, I read Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution last year, which was also an ode to Sherlock Holmes and I really did not like it at all. It lacked much of the appeal of the original stories, in my opinion, and I felt it was merely a pale imitation. So yes, I was certainly tentative and dubious when approaching The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Another reason I was hesitant to pick this book up was because of experiences (or perhaps, lack of experiences is more appropriate!) I’d had with Sherlock Holmes in the past. I’ve really enjoyed the Conan Doyle I’ve read thus far, but I’m by no means an expert when it comes to his infamous sleuth. I’ve read the first two novels and a handful of short stories, but that’s about it. So part of me wondered whether much of this novel’s charm would be lost on me because I didn’t have enough background knowledge to appreciate the references. I can assure you, this was not the case, so thank you to everyone who encouraged me to pick this up sooner rather than waiting until I’d read the extant Sherlock stories as a rather hefty appetizer. I won’t deny that the better you know the Holmes stories the more you’re apt to pick up on little things here and there, but at no point did I feel like an previous Holmes knowledge was requisite. I suppose there’s not much to say except that I’m exceedingly glad that I cast aside my fears and listened to all you bloggers who have praised this series to high heaven (Eva at A Striped Armchair springs to mind, but I know there have been other vocal and ardent champions out there). I found the novel absolutely enchanting, and I adored Mary as a character. I thought it was wonderful that King created this spunky, intelligent female character to pair with Holmes (as I must admit I did always find Watson rather bumbling). I know some have charged that Mary Russell is really just a Mary Sue character, but I thought she had more depth than such a label would normally afford. I just really enjoyed how independent and determined Mary was, holding her own admirably against Holmes, but also in terms of pursuing her education and becoming a woman of self-sufficient means. She kind of reminded me of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, only far better (and far less annoying!)! I also really loved the overall feel of the novel. Here finally is an appropriate tribute to the original series! I felt the tone of the story neatly matched the vibe of the original stories, evoking the smoky streets of London with its dingy back-alleys without feeling forced or contrived, and the rather episodic nature of the novel also seemed fitting. I thought the mysteries themselves were strong and very Sherlock Holmesian in their influence, and they kept me guessing until Holmes and Russell cracked the case. I rarely feel compelled upon finishing a book in a series to immediately start the next book, but The Beekeeper’s Apprentice made me anxious to get my mitts on the next book in the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. I haven’t procured it yet, but I’ve got a good feeling that a beautiful friendship is on the rise. Rating: 4 out of 5

26 Comments

  1. 06/24/2010

    I keep going back and forth on whether to read this for the same reason as you – not having read enough Sherlock Holmes. But it sounds like I could enjoy the book anyway. Thanks for the thorough analysis!

  2. 06/24/2010

    I have read this but did not know about the other book you recommend. So thanks for highlighting that bit of information!

  3. 06/25/2010

    Hooray, another fan! I’ve recently been converted myself, and like you, I don’t think I’d have given this series a chance if not for blogging. And yes, Mary Russell is like a much, much improved version of Maise Dobbs. As for A Monstrous Regiment of Women, I actually finished it recently, and it was just as good.

  4. I haven’t felt any desire to read this book before, but I think you’ve convinced me 🙂 I’m especially pleased to learn hat you didn’t guess the ending. I’ve added it to my wishlist!

  5. 06/25/2010

    I am so glad to hear you enjoyed this. I’ve been a fan since before the fourth book was released, and I’m astonished at how well the series has held up. The second and third books are among my favorites, but I’ve enjoyed all of them to varying degrees.

    I’d never heard people say Russell was a Mary Sue, but I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t think it’s accurate, though. She’s awfully prickly at times, and I think she would be a difficult person to be friends with (although I’d want to be friends with her), but I think King genuinely likes her as a character which shows up in the writing.

  6. 06/25/2010

    @ rhapsody: The next time you’re looking for a gentle mystery that is well-written but not necessarily taxing on the brain, I highly recommend this one! It was good fun!
     
    @ Mystica: I pretty much immediately started researching which book came next so that I could somehow procure it… I’m hooked!
     
    @ Nymeth: I was certain you were one of the Russell fans out there – she seems exactly like your kind of gal! Glad to hear book 2 is just as good; I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
     
    @ Jackie: I know you don’t tend to read tons of mysteries, so I’m not sure that you’ll love this one as much as others, but I think it’s a fun, fast read so you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a try!
     
    @ Teresa: Glad to hear that the series just keeps getting better! I’m really looking forward to reading more of it!
    And I also could see to some extent the Mary-Sue-ish qualities in Mary, but I felt some of that could be because this was a first novel and sometimes characterization doesn’t go as deep in these as it may later in the series. And I did feel that we got some interesting back story on Mary re: her family’s death that made her more than just a cipher. I certainly don’t think it’s wrong for King to have made her a largely likable character!

  7. 06/25/2010

    So glad you liked this one! I picked it up awhile ago, and haven’t yet gotten to it. I am also one who thought that you needed to have a solid grasp of Sherlock Holmes in order to get this story, but I am glad to hear that a beginner would probably like it too. I actually just finished Maise Dobbs a few weeks ago, and though I liked the book, there were some things that left me less than pleased. It sounds like I would have much better success with this one, and now I am really looking forward to it. I know that this is a pretty long series, but I am excited at the possibility of having a whole new set of books to love. Wonderful review, Steph!

  8. I discovered this series via blogging too and bought the first couple for my boyfriend who loves them (he’s now read the fourth)! He started to read them on the back of the entire Sherlock Holmes series and appreciated the further adventures of Holmes and all of the nods to the original novels and short stories.

    I think it is about time I read them myself (not that it was at all my intent in procuring the books as a gift for him… ;))

  9. 06/25/2010

    I remember Frances talking about this series before. I might want to read Sherlock Holmes first before this, though, probably.

  10. 06/25/2010

    I really should read this series. I am a mystery nut all of a sudden and seem to be reading nothing but!

  11. Kathleen
    06/25/2010

    I got this one from the library a few weeks ago and haven’t had a chance to read it. I just renewed it for another 2 weeks today. I really hope I will get around to reading since yours and so many other reviews make the book sounds so tempting. I think I can credit Eva for bringing this series to my attention also!

  12. 06/25/2010

    I enjoyed this book but probably won’t read anymore. I don’t like mysteries that much…

  13. 06/25/2010

    I just read and reviewed this book as well! I liked it, though I thought it was a bit overly long. For example, I am not sure what the whole point of the Palestine section was, and I feel that could have been taken out. However, I am looking forward to the rest of the series! I have a little trouble with the romantic aspect of the book, but… I am choosing to studiously ignore that for now.

  14. 06/25/2010

    @ zibilee: I actually don’t mind the Maisie Dobbs series either (though I haven’t read all of the books), but I do think this one is a little less bothersome. It’s not quite as hokey (which I feel Maisie is becoming increasingly), and it just felt more lively. I hope you enjoy it!
     
    @ Claire(PBR): I think you’ll really be charmed by this one. Tony is currently reading through Sherlock Holmes, so maybe when he’s done he’ll want to take Mary Russell out for a spin!
     
    @ claire(KaC): I think reading a few Sherlock Holmes pieces beforehand would be good (like say A Study in Scarlet and maybe some of the short stories), but you certainly don’t need extensive background! This is lighter than a lot of your other reads, but is kind of like a mystery series that Persephone might publish!
     
    @ Stephanie: I love mysteries too, though find that few series really appeal. This is definitely one worth your time!

  15. 06/25/2010

    @ Kathleen: This is definitely a quick read – can certainly be read in 2-3 days with ease.
    And I agree that Eva is a wonderful resource when it comes to finding books outside the box!
     
    @ Rebecca: Since you’re not really a mystery fan, I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily be a game changer for you… but I assure you it’s so much better than most of the stuff out there!
     
    @ Aarti: I’m off to read your review right now! And I agree, I’m leery about the upcoming romantic twists, but I trust King to pull it off tastefully… here’s hoping!

  16. 06/26/2010

    A friend recommended this to me over a decade ago, and I’ve passed on the recommendation many times. They’re a good combination of characterization, good writing and good plotting. To whomever mentioned the Palestine bit, I think it was there to set up a later sequel (the one after The Moor, I think). I enjoyed Monstrous Regiment and Letter of Mary quite a lot, but didn’t go much beyond them. King sas another mystery series, the first three of which are still on my shelf, but I still haven’t tackled them.

  17. 06/27/2010

    Steph, on a different note, I just finished reading Shopgirl by Steve Martin and immediately thought of you. Have you read it? If not, I hope you do because I think you’ll like it. I’d seen the movie some years ago, but the book is a million times better.

  18. 06/27/2010

    @ Girl Detective: Yes, I read that the Palestine bit is expanded up on in a later novel, O Jerusalem, so although I don’t think it added much to this tale, obviously it’s setting up something later. I’ve also heard of King’s other series, but I’ll probably stick to Mary Russell for now!
     
    @ claire: Haven’t read Shopgirl, and I haven’t seen the movie either! I will keep the recommendation in mind; I’ve heard the book is (surprisingly) great!

  19. 06/27/2010

    Don’t watch the film before the book, or you’ll have their faces stuck on you, lol.

  20. 06/28/2010

    @ claire: I will try not too! Although I do know that Claire Danes is in the film, so maybe she’ll pop up every now and then.. 😉

  21. 06/28/2010

    One great thing about your blog is that you and I have very similar reading interests. I swear this book (how can you miss that cover) has been staring at me on so many occasions during my bookstore runs. I never picked it up—not even read the blurb—because I thought this is chick lit. Shelock Holmes???? I’m in.

  22. 06/28/2010

    @ Matt: I do love that cover an awful lot! I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it either, though, if I didn’t know it was a much beloved series!

  23. Eva
    07/21/2010

    *happy dance* This post made me so happy Steph! Yay for another Mary Russell fan! 😀

  24. 07/21/2010

    @ Eva: I really have you to thank for this series, because it’s your reviews of this series that really stand out the most for me! Thank you for creating another obsession… 🙂

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