Let me state right off the bat, that Sherlock Holmes (you may have read this elsewhere on my blog) is my favorite literary character of all - ever since I discovered him while in junior high school. Needless to say, I've read all the Conan Doyle stories and several of the Holmes pastiches over the years - liking some more than others. But when I read what Laurie R. King was planning, I was over the moon with excitement. My only hope was that King would be a good enough writer to get away with it.
I needn't have worried. King is the writer that Holmes deserves, the writer I would have chosen to write about Holmes if I were in charge of such things. Here's what she did: She created Mary Russell, a young woman, well, a girl of fifteen really, when she first meets Holmes in the war year of 1915. He has 'retired' at the age of 54, to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. Russell (as Holmes will later always refer to her) is a recent orphan, living on a farm with a despised aunt, after the death in California, of her immediate family - mother, father, younger brother - in a dreadful automobile accident which only Russell survived.
The main thing we learn early on about Russell is this: she is as brilliant as Holmes. This is the tip-off. She is as brilliant as Holmes. He, of course, realizes this almost immediately. When Russell amuses the great man he offers an invitation. "Young lady," he stressed the second word with gentle irony, "you have caused me amusement twice in one day, which is more than anyone else has done in some time. I have little humour to offer in return, but if you would care to accompany me home, I could at least give you a cup of tea." They are chaperoned, of course by Mrs. Hudson who is still serving as housekeeper, far from Baker Street.
The gentle irony mentioned comes into play because Holmes at first mistook Russell for a young boy - her braids were tucked up into her cap. Later, at the cottage, once he realizes the depth of her brilliance, he muses, "Twenty years ago," he murmured. "Even ten. But here? Now?" He shook his head and focused again on me. "What will you read at university?" I smiled. I couldn't help it; I knew just how he was going to react, and I smiled, anticipating his dismay. "Theology." (Russell is Jewish. By the way, author Laurie R. King also has a degree in Theology.) His reaction was as violent as I knew it would be, but if I was sure of anything in my life, it was that.....he wrestled with the idea, and by the time we returned he had decided that it was no worse than anything else, though he considered it a waste, and said so. I did not respond.
From this beginning, despite Russell's independent spirit and scholarly pursuits, grows a deep friendship springing really, from a kind of fusing of minds. It is this aspect of the story that most interests me - the way that author Laurie R. King fashions this enigmatic female, the only sort of female a man like Holmes could ever remotely be interested in, even if too young by half when they first meet. Mary Russell alone realizes the true reason for Holmes' premature retirement: ...You are here to escape the disagreeable sensation of being surrounded by inferior minds, minds that can never understand because they are just not built that way...Russell does understand this, only too well.
She will attend Oxford's women's college, all the while tutored by Holmes in the more arcane arts of detection. She is the beekeeper's apprentice as she grows into a young woman. Russell then becomes Holme's true equal when together they survive a deadly rite of passage: they must vanquish an enemy who has risen from Holme's past to threaten them both.
In less talented hands, this story, this series could have been a disaster of immense proportions. In King's hands, everything clicks, everything works. As the Holmes/Russell relationship deepens (I'm not telling you anything you won't already have guessed) over the next couple of books I recommend reading O Jerusalem immediately after Beekeeper, even though it was not meant to be the second book in the series. THEN read the actual second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women and so on and so forth. Except for this, my own personal anomaly, the rest of the books should be read in order of publication.
Since the books are mostly told in the first person, in Mary Russell's faultless voice, we are privy to new impressions of the famous cast of Conan Doyle characters, not only Holmes, but Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, etc. Everything fresh and new filtered through Russell's intelligent vision. This is a great part of the attraction of these books, the idea that we're looking at old friends through a different lens.
I've said this before and I'll say it once again: Laurie R. King has taken Holmes and turned him into an actual flesh and blood man, something even Conan Doyle failed to do. He is no longer just a brain, he is a brain and a heart.
To read more about the Holmes and Russell books, here's the link to author Laurie R. King's website and blog.