The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, On the Segregation of the Queen is the first in a series of mystery novels by Laurie R. King, which feature an elderly Sherlock Holmes and a youthful half-American student of theology, one Mary Russell. It was first published in 1994, and has to date seen eleven novel-length sequels. It’s not science fiction or fantasy—I may have felt the need for a wee break from SFF—except inasmuch as it involves Sherlock Holmes, a character frequently beloved of many people who’re also SFF fans—but it is a brilliant book.
I may be the last person in the world to realise that this book existed, and that it was good. But in case there are any other poor benighted souls out there who, like me, somehow escaped hearing about its virtues in the last couple of decades, I propose to tell you about them.
Between the literary career of Arthur Conan Doyle (beginning with A Study in Scarlet in 1886) and the detective novel boom of the 1920s, the mystery novel as we know it took shape: a genre of timetables and village misunderstandings alongside villains and knives in the dark, peopled with unusually perspicacious investigators. The detective novels of the 1920s and 1930s can be delightful things, but their literary quality is variable, and they’re all too often riddled with the prejudices of their age. It struck me, reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, that King has written an extraordinarily playful book, one born of deep affection for the canon that shaped the start of the mystery novel as a genre unto itself—but not blind to its faults.
For King has approached her story with a rather more literary sensibility than one usually finds in mystery novels: as much as anything else, this is the story of a prickly, intellectually demanding, intelligent young woman coming of age in England during and immediately after the Great War, a period before women were admitted as full members of the universities. Mary Russell is an orphan with an inheritance, who will be released from the guardianship of her aunt once she attains her majority. This gives her a certain freedom of action within the narrative, without which the story could not proceed as it does, later… but the second half of the novel, the one that plays more with the tools of the Sherlockian canon, is weaker for me than its beginnings. For when Mary Russell first meets the (semi-retired) Sherlock Holmes, he’s in his late fifties and she’s in her teens, and the sense that King creates is one of two clever but lonely minds discovering that neither of them is as singular as they had supposed, nor do they need to be as lonely. The slow build of their intellectual relationship, in which Holmes engages with Russell first as a mentor and then, gradually, as a teacher who’s accepted the student’s equality in a full professional partnership, is a marvellous story of an intellectual coming-of-age. An intellectual coming-of-age as a woman.
King’s story takes place over the course of years, and incorporates at least three separate mysteries, scaling in levels of urgency and peril until Holmes and Russell are themselves in physical danger from a villain who is more than capable of outwitting Holmes himself. Peril alternates with moments of introspection: King never loses a sense of tension and character all the way through. There is something about her prose, though the narrative is recounted in first person, that reminds me of the later novels of Dorothy L. Sayers: an attention to landscape but also to interiority, and a quiet, understated elegance of description that delights me.
Perhaps I should argue that The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is really science fiction or fantasy anyway, because of the Holmesian conceit, or has the sensibilities thereof: I don’t think I can make this argument, though I do believe that SFF readers will enjoy it. I did, very much.