Has anyone here not read the Mary Russell series yet? If so, stop now and go find yourself a copy of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and meet young Mary Russell, 15 years old and orphaned, and snarking at a much older Sherlock Holmes who has retired to Sussex and beekeeping. Pulling heavily from Doyle’s representation of Sherlock Holmes (and still acknowledging both Doyle and Watson as fiction writers and creators of the world’s view of Sherlock Holmes), Laurie R. King has given us a new character, and a new perspective, in the great wide world of Sherlock fanworks.
I’ve followed Mary Russell across England and America, to Japan and Jerusalem, and now into the estimable Mrs. Hudson’s past, and it’s always interesting. I think a large part of it is the continued obsession the public has for the figure of Sherlock Holmes – he’s absolutely fascinating. There are currently two different TV shows and a fairly recent movie series (along with Ian McKellen’s fabulous movie Mr. Holmes) that I know of, and probably quite a few more that I don’t. Each one gives a slightly different take on the story, and the Mary Russell series is no different. Instead of focusing on Holmes himself, everything is shifted ever so slightly to someone who sees the same way, but doesn’t have the experience. Unlike Dr. Watson, she’s just as observant as Holmes, and has some of the same character flaws, coupled with, at least in the beginning, loneliness and despair from losing her family, hidden behind a snarking exterior.
She is his equal, not his biographer.
Told from Russell’s point of view, the series begins with a young Mary Russell stumbling over a man lying out in the fields, and astonishes him with their conversation:
“I beg your pardon, are you hard of hearing?” I raised my voice somewhat and spoke slowly. “I said, if you want a new hive you’ll have to follow the blue spots, because the reds are sure to be Tom Warner’s.”
“I am not hard of hearing, although I am short of credulity. How do you come to know of my interests?”
“I should have thought it obvious,” I said impatiently, though even at that age aware that such things were not obvious to the majority of people. “I see paint on your pocket-handkerchief, and traces on your fingers where you wiped it away. The only reason to mark bees that I can think of is to enable one to follow them to their hive. You are either interested in gathering honey or in the bees themselves, and it is not the time of year to harvest honey. Three months ago we had an unusual cold spell that killed many hives. Therefore I assume that you are tracking these in order to replenish your own stock.”
The series takes place after the turn of the century, and follows Holmes and Russell throughout their years together, first as mentor and apprentice, then as equals, and later as husband and wife. Russell has no trouble admitting that Holmes generally knows more than she does, that he still has more to teach her, even after she is no longer under his tutelage. She becomes a strong, independent woman, studying theology at Oxford, taking cases on her own, and establishing her presence in the world.
The series is a wonderful feminist look at the classic idea of the consulting detective. The combination with theology leads the couple to interesting places, from, as I said before, Jerusalem to a feminist Christian sect in London. Russell is caring and sympathetic, but overly ruled by logic. She’s no damsel in distress, but holds her own both against Holmes and what else the world throws at her. Between the two, I think she’s the stronger character, able to step back from the mystery and just live, overcoming her past and pain, and using the combination of logic and heart to make her way in the world.
The entire series is wonderful. Seriously, if you like historical mysteries, or if you are a fan of the famous consulting detective, go get a copy of the first book. Trust me, as soon as you are done, you’ll be chomping at the bit for the next.