” Sherlock Holmes had invented his profession, and it fit him like a glove. We watched in admiration that verged on awe as his love of challenge, his flair for the dramatic, his precise attention to detail, and his vulpine intelligence were called into play and transformed his thin face by putty and paint into that of his brother. (Ch.10, p.225)
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a rich Sherlockian pastiche, in which the great detective, now 54, is brought of his retirement among the bees of Sussex by a new amanuensis, the budding Mary Russell. The orphaned 15-year-old Russell, under the care of her greedy aunt who is eying the money left behind by Russell’s parents, runs into the bee-observing detective at the hillside in a rather clumsy meeting. She proves herself to be keen, clear-minded, and observant to details; but not Holmes’s intellectual equal. Nor is she the feminist that she claims to be—at least not at age 15.
The truth of the matter was that Holmes had enemies, many of them. He had explained this to me a number of times, drilled me on the precautions I had to take, forced me to acknowledge that I too could become a target for vengeance-seeking acquaintances. (Ch.8, p.181)
Relationship between Russell and Holmes takes center stage here. Russell is the narrator, giving reader an understanding of things from her perspective, and showing Holmes as he is. There’s lots of background as per how they meet and how she comes to Sussex, and a prerequisite case in which mysterious bouts of illness that befall their victims only in clear weather. After investigating a robbery and a kidnapping with Holmes, Mary Russell goes to Oxford, and just when one is resigned to more unrelated adventures, the pair is confronted by a series of bombings that put them in danger. But this story proper does not even get started until halfway through the book, and the pace is nothing like what a Sherlock Holmes case that I’m used to. The mystery plot, one in which the perpetrator, highly educated and with sense of humor) tries to kill Holmes and Russell and everyone who matters to Holmes, feels very much like an afterthought.
The writing is very descriptive and episodic. Russell is as curious as Holmes is eccentric. The best part of the book is the course of their relationship: how Holmes shapes and molds her into his assistant, how they respect each other, but do not shy away from saying what needs to be said. Holmes herself is a master of disguises, and it’s fun to watch his many disguises to evade the perpetrator. This book, however, is not a Holmes story in the Sir Conan Doyle tradition. Nor is it as brilliant as its characters purportedly are.
405 pp. Bantam Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]