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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A tribute to Laurie R. King

Fellow Holmesian bustacap emailed me his recent tribute to Laurie R. King. I liked it so much I'm posting it here with his permission:

Cheers to Laurie R. King. She's the author of one of my favorite series of books, the Mary Russell novels. If you'd told me several years ago that today I'd be reading (and loving) a series of feminist historical novels, I'd have called you a nutjob ... yet here I am. I have been an avid Sherlockian (i.e. rabid fans of all things Sherlock Holmes) for much of my life. Five years ago or so, I was searching out pastiches to fulfill my Holmes jones, and ran across an oddly-named (but highly-praised) "The Beekeeper's Apprentice". The premise is this (slightly modified from an uncredited review):
At 15 years of age, Mary Russell is tall and gangling, bespectacled and bookish, as well as tormented by the accidental demise of her parents and younger brother in a car accident that left her scarred but alive. In 1915, the orphaned heiress is living in her ancestral home on Sussex Downs (in the south of England) with an embittered aunt acting as Mary's guardian until she comes of age. To escape the aunt's generally malevolent disposition, Mary wanders Sussex Downs, exploring reading books. On one such outing, she literally trips over a gaunt, elderly man sitting on the ground, "watching bees." This gentleman turns out to be Sherlock Holmes (who, as every Holmesian knows, retired to Sussex to raise bees). The resulting acquaintance evolves into a mentoring experience for the young woman. The story is well written in a style reminiscent of Conan Doyle's, but is also very much King's own. The plot is by turns predictable and surprising, and the characterizations are excellent, with skillfully evoked times and places. Readers come to understand much of Holmes that was unexplained by Dr. Watson. These additions are entirely plausible, and the relationship between the great detective and his apprentice is a delight. Readers see much of Sussex, London, and even of student life at Oxford and the conditions of Romanies (Gypsies) in Wales. Wartime Britain is accurately evoked, and the whole is a lot of fun to read. While a fitting addition to the Holmes oeuvre, the narrative is delightfully feminist.
I was captivated, and devoured the book, as well as several sequels, as soon as they became available. Russell, as tough-minded and brilliant in her own way as Holmes, matures into almost the perfect foil for him ... even, perhaps, better than Watson (heresy!). Over the years, their relationship progresses, and Russell becomes more than simply an apprentice to Holmes; an unlikely (yet satisfying) April-December romance blooms between them. Thus far the series has explored the nascent feminist movement in England (A Monstrous Regiment of Women), ancient early Christian theology (A Letter of Mary), the Devonshire Moors -- the ominous setting of Holmes' most famous adventure "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (The Moor), early 1900s Palestine (O Jerusalem), murder amongst the British aristocracy (Justice Hall), intrigue in India in the time of Rudyard Kipling (The Game), and in the latest effort, the demise of Mary's own family in San Francisco (Locked Rooms). Along the way we meet many famous true-life and fictional historical figures, all richly drawn. If you like Holmes, strong female characters, snarky humor, theology, detective fiction, historical novels, and general all-around intelligent writing, you could do far, far worse than the Mary Russell books. Highly, highly recommended.
I've read a few of Laurie King's books and I concur with bustacap.


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