Exactly What I Wanted: More Sherlock Holmes! (Part Two)

King_LoB_coverOkay, last time I established that I looooooove Sherlock Holmes. I also mentioned that, to me, Jeremy Brett (of the BBC series) best captured Holmes’s voice to the extent that when I read a Holmes story, I automatically “cast” Brett in the role and hear the dialogue coming from his mouth. This is as true of the pastiches as it is of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work. If I can’t hear Brett speaking the words, the story will fail the Holmes litmus test.

So, with one more plug for the wonderful anthology, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Night Shade Books (edited by John Joseph Adams), I’d like to talk about Laurie R. King.

I did not read any of Ms. King’s books until I’d had a number of people I trusted recommend them to me. When one of my dearest friends asked, “Have you read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice?”  (the first book in the series), I reluctantly decided it was time I did. I did not “believe in” Holmes pastiches, you see. I figured that, at best, they’d have nothing to add to the Holmes mystique and at worst would only annoy me with attempts to capture lightning in a bottle.

So, I purchased The Beekeeper’s Apprentice from the local used bookstore with low expectations. The first thing I noted was that the chronicler was not Dr. Watson, but a young woman named Mary Russell and that the book was not so much about Holmes as it was about her and her apprenticeship with the retired detective. Mary had a strong, clear voice—every bit as clear as Holmes’s and, when Mary literally tripped over the quintessential supersleuth on a hilltop and the two began to interact, I was hooked. Not only was the heroine no Princess Buttercup (i.e. an indecisive, dithering female who can’t even handle the average Rodent of Unusual Size in defense of her True Love), but I heard, once more, the beloved, sometimes acerbic tones of Holmes’s voice as well.

The hallmark, to me, of Doyle’s Holmes and of Jeremy Brett’s sterling portrayal of him, was an indefinable mercurial quality. As if Holmes’s spirit was so immense and so galvanic that it leaked out of him at unexpected moments, startling the other characters and the reader with its intensity. He was, in a word, electric. Laurie King captured that quality and created a female counterpart for Holmes that was a nearly perfect foil for it. Mary is at times startled by Holmes, but ultimately she is never overwhelmed by him. She keeps up. She is smart, quick, cunning, and observant. Holmes, startled himself at finding such an intellect in the bucolic English countryside, cannot stand to see such an intellect go to waste. He undertakes to train Mary Russell in his methods of deduction and experimentation.

They are a formidable pair, and after I had devoured The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I was thrilled to discover that there was an entire collection of Mary Russell books waiting to be read. Books in which both characters grow and change, and are immersed in adventures that challenge them mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve bought the rest of the books in the series new because I believe a good writer deserves to be compensated in a way that her publishers will notice ($$). We now own all of the Mary Russell books (I bought my husband her latest, The Language of Bees, for Christmas), and I hear I’m going to have to purchase one of King’s Kate Martinelli books as well, since she cleverly embedded an “unknown” Holmes story in it.

There is another reason I recommend Laurie R. King’s books to everyone who loves good stories—she is an excellent writer. She has the English language and she’s not afraid to use it. In a world where too often I pick up books that contain grammatical implosions, sentences that would exhaust a marathon runner and confuse a puzzle master, and just plain sloppy writing (and/or editing), Laurie King’s work gleams.

And so, to each new installment of her Mary Russell chronicles I can only say: “Ooooo! Shiny!”

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Exactly What I Wanted: More Sherlock Holmes! (Part Two) — 1 Comment

  1. I was still living in New York when I read Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second Holmes-Russell book, and came upon a brief scene where Mary Russell encounters a friend of Holmes’s–a youngish fellow with sleek fair hair and a silly ass manner who plays the piano brilliantly; she addresses him only as “Peter.”

    I let out a crack of laughter that scared the other people on the IRT, because it had never occurred to me before, but of course Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey are contemporaries (well, Holmes the older, Wimsey considerably younger), and of course they’d know each other.

    I also enormously admire the way she essentially dismisses the Holmes-fan’s knee-jerk “this isn’t the Holmes I know” by saying, point blank, that that’s Watson’s Holmes, not the man she knew.

    They’re wonderfully satisfying books.