Sunday, October 28, 2012
The Beekeeper's Apprentice
Author: Laurie R. King
The felt cap, the magnifying glass, the pipe. The sharp nose, the serious grey eyes, the angular cheekbones, the thin long legs. Quick with words, sharper with action, hardly sleeps, always works, and keeps his associates in the dark. In other words, Sherlock Holmes.
Over the century since Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries were first published in the Strand, hundreds of adaptations of his character have appeared on stage, film, print, and music. Many of these adaptations have taken considerable liberties with the original detective so beloved to millions worldwide, resulting in interesting if non-canon stories. Doyle expressed distaste for his detective, hoping in the end that Holmes would not be his legacy, and unfortunately for him, that is the end of the story. His other works, including The Lost World, are excellent, but all pale in comparison to the astute and acidic observations of the Baker Street resident.
Few authors are ever praised for being uncreative, but Laurie R. King deserves a medal for doing just that: sticking to the original character. Far too many adaptation authors take liberties and alter the characters to their whims, betraying the original fans, but King has taken Holmes delicately into her hands and shaped him as Doyle might have, aging and retiring but by no means ordinary. The Beekeeper's Apprentice offers readers a look forward into the Holmes's later years on the Sussex Downs, patterned carefully after the original stories but with an air of progress.
The novel is narrated by a young girl named Mary Russell, who has just relocated to a family-owned farm on the downs and literally stumbles into Holmes on her walk one day. He is intrigued by her sharp, cynical mind, so very much like his own, and a casual friendship develops between them. There is no partnership between them, however, until Mary takes on a case of thievery on her own initiative, and Holmes sees that she has a capable mind "for a female." They forge a stronger friendship as the story progresses with the kidnapping of an American senator's daughter and a plot against Holmes, and they are tested both as individuals and as a pair.
Mary stands up to Watson in caliber, endearment, and appropriateness, but outshines him for intellect. Many an author's mistake is to "fangirl:" to place their character in a position where the adapted main character either becomes best friends or falls in love with them, often awkwardly. Not so in this case: Mary is a woman pulled vividly from the early 20th century, representing a shift to modern thought, and Holmes is fascinated with her both for her traditional education and intellect and modern scorn of propriety. Not only does this make her interesting for readers, it makes their relationship plausible, possible, and even likely. Despite being a Victorian gentleman, Holmes has always had a flavor of the unorthodox about him.
King has also been careful about her language. Writing the entire novel in Doyle's dense Victorian prose might be difficult for modern readers, but abandoning it entirely would be a betrayal to the dignity of the stories and take away from Mary's voice. Instead, she has struck a balance that works well, with a strong feeling of education and poetry but still captivating and understandable to her audiences.
Seeing Holmes at the age of 54, retired with beehives on the Sussex Downs, seems somewhat inglorious for the fans of his wild days as a London detective. Conducting experiments in his basement and walking to the village with honey alone hardly seems like the cocaine-addled, rapid-fire mind that we know, and at first we protest, "This can't be right! Where's the running and the hunting and 'the game's afoot'?" (by the way, that line belongs to Shakespeare anyway). However, King gently reminds us that people change, even the most rigid and machine-like of people. Mary tells us this in the beginning of the novel, that the Holmes she knew was different than the one she had read of.
After adapting to the first jolt, this older, quieter version of the detective is just as maddeningly endearing as his younger counterpart, perhaps even more so. Because this story does not focus entirely on Holmes and the crimes he solves, we see more of the man and the quick, methodical reasoning that plays a part in his life. The engine of his mind has struck a balance with his body, and Mary describes an aging Holmes that draws out a new flavor: bittersweet. For even this man, so permanent and implacable, is mortal.
The relationship between Mary and Holmes develops well as the story progresses, and if it errs a bit into over-sentimentality, it only lends to the idea that maybe Holmes is human after all. King uses a pair of intellectual equals to explore how they can spur each other to explore the gaps in themselves, progressing beyond just the salving stage of relationships and into a place where they literally shape each other, making each other better people. Surprisingly vivid and touching, we see the lonely lost orphan girl adopt the broken, stiff old man and fill him with life as he fills her with wisdom, each completing one another in small ways.
Conspicuously, Watson is largely absent, though this is only the first of many Mary Russell novels that King has written. Perhaps Watson (whom Mary refers to as "Uncle John") will make a larger appearance in the later books.
Having taken a nearly sacred figure in hand, King has woven him deftly into a story that not only stays true to the originals, but develops him even more into the man that he became after his years in London ended. Avid Holmes fans will find plenty to love, and newcomers will meet a spectacular set of characters, sure to live in the hearts of readers in all generations.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice is eighteen years old now, so it's available in most libraries, but for only $9.99 on the Kindle or $10.20 in paperback, it's affordable and worth the purchase. Rather than a sweeping story of epic proportions, King has woven a deep, moving tale with just a few pages and words, quiet and complex, to press gently into our hearts and stay.