The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King: a book discussion

April 19, 2010 at 4:53 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

On Tuesday evening of last week,  Pauline led the Usual Suspects book group in a discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King.  We were first provided with background on the life and work of the author, then proceeded to talk about the novel itself.

Pauline, always conscientious to a fault as presenter, had prepared several handouts to aid us in our efforts. Main and secondary characters were identified and their roles in the drama described; then we were given a list of discussion questions to consider.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice opens with a short segment called the ‘Editor’s Preface.’ Here’s how it starts off: “The first thing I want the reader to know is that I had nothing to do with this book you have in your hand.”  The writer then proceeds, tongue in cheek one must presume, to disparage the basic premise for the novel that is to follow:

“Ye, I write mystery novels, but even a novelist’s fevered imagination has its limits, and mine would reach those limits long before it came up with the farfetched idea of Sherlock Holmes taking on a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen-year-old sidekick. I mean really: if even Conan Doyle hungered to shove Holmes off a tall cliff, surely a young female of obvious intelligence would have brained the detective on first sight.

We then learn the circumstances of the genesis of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. It seems that a trunk arrived, unbidden, at the writer’s home. In it are a host of random objects from all over the world. And at the bottom are pages and pages of manuscript – the manuscript, it turns out, of this book. Its author is Mary Russell, the “fifteen-year-old sidekick” alluded to above. The writer professes complete ignorance concerning this personage: “If anyone out there knows who Mary Russell was, could you let me know? My curiosity is killing me.”

What is the reader to make of this at once coy and baffling disclaimer? King is not the first writer to use this kind of distancing device. One instance that comes to my mind occurs in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which begins, “I met a traveller from an antique land /  Who said..”

We of the Suspects were not greatly enamored of the Editor’s Preface. It seemed to us a perverse, even obstructive way to begin the novel. It’s as if the author were  saying, This will make sense to you much later. As of now,  just trust me. As a reader, I felt as though I were being toyed with.  It’s a feeling I don’t much like.

(Each chapter in Beekeeper features a beautifully worded superscription. We are informed in the Editor’s Preface that these quotations are taken from a work entitled The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck.)

The Editor’s Preface is followed by the even briefer “Prelude: Author’s Note,” purportedly written by Mary Russell herself in extreme – though still lucid – old age.  We are told that she wishes her memoir to act as a  corrective to what she considers the often fallacious impression created by the stories of Dr. Watson – “those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew…” (The young Mary Russell calls Dr. Watson “Uncle John,” an appellation that some of us found grating. The novel’s portrait of Watson was of a bumbling albeit good-hearted fool. We Holmes and Watson loyalists were not amused!)

Finally – finally! – we get to the heart of the matter. (Or perhaps I should say, The game is a-foot. One of the many interesting nuggets I picked up last Tuesday is that this famous phrase, invariably associated with Sherlock Holmes, was actually appropriated by his creator from Shakespeare – specifically, from Henry IV, Part One, Act One Scene Three: “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.” [Spoken by Northumberland])

As the action of the novel commences, Mary Russell, a gawky, disconsolate teenager, is wandering the Sussex Downs when she first runs into Sherlock Holmes. Not so much runs into him as nearly trips over him, for he is crouched in the shrubbery observing the activities of the bees in one of the several hives he maintains. From this chance encounter grows a friendship, which evolves into an apprenticeship and ultimately a partnership. Well, ultimately something else…but that’s to be revealed in the next book in the series:

I first read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice when it came out in 1994. My first attempt to get into it failed; I was put off by the material at the beginning. A friend of mine, a crime fiction enthusiast named Katy Evans,* prevailed upon me to try again. I did, and was glad that I had done so. I enjoyed the novel, and liked the sequel even more. However, But the next title,  A Letter of Mary, did not work as well for me. I left the series for a while, jumping back in with Locked Rooms because I like what the reviewers were saying about it. I really loved Locked Rooms,  the eighth book in the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series, which thus far  comprises ten titles.

Back to the subject at hand. Things got lively when Pauline asked us how we felt about the relationship between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes; in other words, did we acknowledge the plausibility of the entire scenario as laid out by King in her novel. This was something I really wanted to talk about. I’ve already mentioned how taken I was with this novel upon my first reading it. I revisited it this time by listening to the audio book, ably narrated by Jenny Sterlin. And I found myself reacting very differently to the book’s basic premise; namely, that the veteran, highly eccentric and highly reclusive detective – retired, and in his mid-fifties – would so admire a fifteen-year-old girl that he would almost immediately take her under his wing and  be desirous of her company (and stroke her hair softly when she was upset).  In short – I found the idea preposterous.

One of the other Suspects professed herself “creeped out” by the age difference between the two protagonists. I agreed with her – in fact, I felt as though I were realizing the extent of the disparity for the first time. To add to that, I did not find Mary Russell herself to be a particularly appealing, or even believable, character. She seemed all head and no heart, an odd amalgam for an adolescent girl. We were reminded that Mary had suffered the tragic loss of her family in an automobile accident for which she felt partly responsible. Adding to that, she was currently living with an aunt whom she despised but to whom she was legally bound until she reached majority and could take control of her parents’ estate. She had undoubtedly put on a sort of emotional armor, in an effort to ward off further “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I accept all of that. What was harder to accept was that this young woman would manifest so few of the ordinary, expected longings of one her age and instead choose to become the disciple, as it were, of an intensely cerebral gentleman almost old enough to be her grandfather.

I’ve said in the past that I’ve finished some books via the audio version that I would probably not have gotten through had I been trying to read them. This is still true, but at least when you have the physical book in front of you, you can skim passages that you’re impatient with. That’s tough to do with CD’s – particularly when it’s only you in the car! At any rate, the reason I bring this up at this juncture is that there were times when I was listening to Beekeeper when I would have dearly loved to have been able to “page forward.” That whole business with thee missing hams, for instance, became really tedious. Mary may have been thrilled to find matching soil samples, but Yours Truly was truly bored by that entire case. The actual book, in the St. Martin’s Press soft cover edition, is 346 pages long. To me, it felt padded in places; I could wish it had been shorter.

The plot structure of Beekeeper is episodic rather than linear. My favorite episode is one that Pauline rather wonderfully called an “Excursis.” In it, Holmes and Russell adopt disguises and flee Britain for the Middle East. The description of their travels is wonderful. I felt certain that King must have visited these places herself, she captures their exotic fascination so well. Pauline asked whether Mary Russell’s strong identification with Judaism, while she and Holmes were  in the Holy Land, “served any useful purpose in the novel?” I actually thought it did. It humanized Mary, for one thing. It was moving. I love the psalm that she quotes: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem….” I was surprised to learn that Laurie King is not Jewish herself. She apparently threw that element into the mix of Mary’s background -Mary’s mother had been Jewish – to make her seem more exotic. Possessing a similar heritage myself, I rather like that idea!

We were asked to consider the novel’s subtitle: :”On the Segregation of the Queen.”  (The subtitle does not appear on the cover of St. Martin’s Press edition, although it is included on the title page.) In this my second traversal of Beekeeper, I was for some reason much more aware of the significance of the word “queen.” Chess plays a prominent part in the novel, as do bees. In both, of course, queens play a vital role. But why, I wonder, the word “segregation?” I can’t recall whether we talked about that last week.

A few more words about Mary Russell. There were ways in which she reminded me of one of my heroes, Dorothy L. Sayers. Like Russell, Sayers attended Oxford University. At the close of the First World War, she was among the first in a group of women to be granted a full degree from that august institution. (This would make her roughly Mary Russell’s contemporary.) Sayers was, I believe, beset by some of the same insecurities that troubled Mary. She was fiercely intellectual and quite brilliant, but her relations with men were fraught with difficulty and pain. If I had seen more of  this sort of vulnerability in Mary Russell, I might have warmed to her more readily. Even so, in my mind’s eye, Russell bears a physical resemblance to Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers

The setting of Beekeeper ranges far and wide: Sussex, Oxford, Wales, London, and the Middle East. At the novel’s conclusion, we find ourselves once again back in Sussex. Pauline, our resident “Brit,” gave us some interesting background on that region of England. As it happens, I had recently been reading about the newly established South Downs National Park in one of my favorite magazines, Beautiful Britain.

Much more was discussed in regard to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Pauline did her usual superb job of leading our discussion. We actually had to stop, as we were running out of time. This novel is very discussible and chock full of riches, both historical and cultural. And of course, there’s the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes himself, about whom an entire college course could be taught –  and no doubt is. (Frances, our resident Sherlock Holmes  specialist, could no doubt enlighten me here. Her expertise was much appreciated at this meeting.)

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We members of the Usual Suspects now have our very own signature tote bags!

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Laurie King is set to appear at Howard County Library later this month, on Friday the 30th to be exact. Click here for details.

Laurie R King

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*My friend Katy Evans passed away three years ago. I was glad for this opportunity to remember her, in a  context that she would have greatly appreciated.

9 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    Roberta, I totally enjoyed this post about your group’s experience with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I have read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice 2 or 3 times now. I have enjoyed it each time. It was the first book that our library book group read when it began 3 years ago. Some of the same concerns and comments that you shared were voiced at that time. I will say that I really liked this first book in the mystery series and keep meaning to continue, but I never have. I’m not sure what that says about my true enjoyment, but I continue to be hopeful that I will pick up book 2. 🙂

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I don’t want to be pedantic, but I just want to add another quotation–the one that I was thinking of during our discussion. It’s from Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. I didn’t know that the Bard used the same words in “Henry IV, Part I. (Did he usually repeat himself?) This quotation is part of the famous speech Henry makes before the battle of Agincourt.

    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
    Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
    Cry “God for Harry! England and Saint George!”

    Thanks for your comments about our discussion.

    Pauline

    P.S. I was wondering if you want to show your readers our brand new book club tote bags.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Pauline,

      First – thanks so much for your comment. Apparently the Bard does repeat himself! I really like the verse from Henry V – thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      As for the bag – I had every intention of including a picture of it in this post – and I forgot! I’m going to remedy the omission right now!

  3. Frances said,

    “We of the Suspects were not greatly enamored of the Editor’s Preface. It seemed to us a perverse, even obstructive way to begin the novel. ”
    I have to say I did not agree with the group’s feelings about this at all.

    I recall suggesting that King began her novel with a voice of “authority”, the voice of she who loved and wed Sherlock Holmes, what we Sherlockians call “The Game”. It was intended to bring a ring of faux “authenticity” to the stories LRK tells, as our beloved Paul Churchill, co founder of Watson’s Tin Box in Columbia, MD., used to say. This device puts King into role of a Recorder of Fact, even as Watson was recorder of the “True” exploits of Holmes. Watson was Holmes’s Boswell as Holmes stated in a Canon story:
    “I am lost without my Boswell.” {Sherlock Holmes referring to Dr. Watson} James Boswell (1740-1795) famously chronicled the life of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and is credited with inventing the modern art of biography.) King using the trunk and its contents as an opening device seems quite right, and great fun, to me.

    I thought it was great fun to anchor the beginning of the novel in the words of a character yet unknown to us, as in fact she is still largely an unknown quantity to herself in may ways as Beekeeper’s Apprentice opens, as is the eternal plight of 15 year old youth everywhere. The thrill of Laurie’s work is that we watch Mary Russell discover herself and watch Holmes, the great detective and observer of Humankind and Bees, the supreme rationalist, discover new places in his heart, mind and soul. So, I enjoyed the beginning and took it in the Sherlockian way I believe Laurie meant it to be, the beginning of a new “Game”. As I said at our meeting and meant 100%, if Holmes is happy, so am I. Mary makes him happy, a happiness which readers see unfolding in the following books. She also became dear to Uncle John, Mycroft and to Mrs. Hudson. King’s books keep these and other beloved characters from ACD’s Canon alive, something we Sherlockians appreciate when well done. King gets it right. In the beginning Russell annoyed me quite often, even though I understood she was protecting herself from enormous pain and guilt derived from losing her family. I eventually grew to respect and like her in time. I trust, no am certain, that dear Holmes knew all along that he had a true apprentice and a Queen in his Game at last. Of course, Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft knew before Mary or Sherlock, exactly what kind of new Game was afoot! The big question is, Who saves Whom in the Russell and Holmes adventures? I think fans of LRK can answer that!

    Another point. I believe that King brings her own academic interests into her work which adds a depth to the couple’s adventures which I find tantalizing. She has a Masters in Old Testament theology and is a strong, independent woman who married a man, her teacher, thirty years her senior. Such May- December matches do occur. Minds of equal metal upon mutual discovery can bond in many ways, not excluding love and passion in the mix. Marrying despite a great age difference is a powerful affirmation of Love because at the outset it demands a conscious commitment to a dire ending, an acceptance of inevitable loss when one reaches the end of life far sooner than the younger partner would desire. Their love story is of Epic proportions, in my humble opinion.

    Finally, as we Sherlockians know for sure, Holmes lives on, largely due to Royal Jelly, and in some part due to the love of Mary Russell Holmes. Thanks be to Laurie R. King.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Frances,

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful and insightful comment. I am sorry if I made a sweeping generalization about an aspect of the discussion about which you, with every justification, had an entirely different viewpoint.

  4. Frances said,

    The meeting was great fun and I am glad we read
    The Beekeeper’s Apprentice together.
    The different takes on a book make the shared reading experience exciting.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      And there we agree completely!

  5. Brian said,

    As a beekeeper myself. I rather interested in reading the beekeeer’s apprentice. Sounds like fun relaxed read, with a touch of something i’m familiar with.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I should probably warn you that there isn’t actually whole lot of material about beekeeping in this novel. Nevertheless, it’s well done and worth reading. And the beekeeping aspect is important to the narrative.

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