Laurie R King at the Howard County Library, and some further Sherlockian points of interest

May 4, 2010 at 1:15 am (books, Film and television, Historical fiction, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

This past Friday night, Laurie R King gave a talk at the East Columbia Branch of the Howard County Library. Area crime  fiction fans had been awaiting Ms King’s appearance for some time now; in the event, we were not disappointed. Ms King was lively, frank, and witty.

After her opening remarks, the author read a short selection from the newest book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The God of the Hive. She prefaced her reading with two pieces of information: first, that in this novel, she employs multiple points of view; and second, that Holmes and Russell are not, at this point, together. First we find ourselves on board ship with Holmes and a wounded man by the name of Damian Adler.  This brief passage was followed by one featuring Mary Russell  and a little girl. Not surprisingly, all parties appear to be fleeing some sort of danger.

King talked about the origin of the character Mary Russell. As she says on her website, “Mary Russell walked into my life with the first line of  The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and took over.”  When asked  about Mary’s extreme youth – she is fifteen at the time that Beekeeper opens – King blithely answered, “That’s how old she was [presumably when she first took up residence in the author’s imagination].  Same answer for the query as to why  Mary Russell is Jewish, although there is some background here:  Laurie R King holds an MA degree in theology, with a special interest in the Old Testament.

What about the considerable age difference between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes? King made an interesting observation here. She reminded us that World War One decimated the population of young men in Britain, leaving so-called “surplus women” with very few viable marriage prospects.  Because of this dire situation, a number of these women chose to marry available older men. During the war, Mary Russell was at Oxford, normally a male-dominated environment. But the young men she might have met and been attracted to were not there; they were in the trenches in Europe. (It should also be noted that the author was for many years married to a professor, Dr. Noel King, who was thirty years her senior. She was widowed last year.)

King spoke of the pleasure of writing historical fiction – the past provides universal reference points; knowledge of that past offers a better understanding of the present era. Her attachment to Britain is vital and ongoing; she regularly visits family there. Pauline, of our mystery discussion group the Usual Suspects, was present on this occasion. She hails from England herself and took the opportunity Friday night of assuring Laurie King that she got the landscape of the Sussex Downs exactly right. (Pauline recently led us in a discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which our group read in honor of Ms King’s forthcoming visit.)

What about the conceit of the mysterious trunk and its contents? King smiled broadly, telling us that this invention was in keeping with the idea that a real character, namely Mary Russell herself, actually wrote the books about her adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Just as so many readers like to believe in the reality of Holmes, this gives them a chance to believe equally in the reality of Mary Russell!

As for the moment in history at which King begins her saga, it too was chosen deliberately. Conan Doyle did not set any of the Holmes stories during or beyond the First World War. This is precisely when Laurie King picks up his story.  Here’s what she states on her website:

Conan Doyle’s stories cease to be set after the beginning of the Great War (he wrote stories after 1914, but they were invariably set long before) because that war killed off the world that was Sherlock Holmes. In the Russell stories, I look at what Holmes might have looked like after that huge change in his society. I honor and respect the character, and his creator, at all times, even when I tweak them for their male posturing and pretensions. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is certainly a form of love.


During our recent discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Frances, our resident Sherlockian and member of Watson’s Tin Box (“a Scion Society of the Baker Street Irregulars”),  brought this recent publication to our attention:  This lively volume is filled with fascinating information, from the life  Conan Doyle, the origins of the stories, background as to time and place, the supporting cast of characters, to the stories’ impressive afterlife in print, film, and television. Here’s what the authors say about the Mary Russell series:

‘Despite the improbability of the romance, or perhaps because of it, King’s books have attracted a legion of fans who now write their own pastiches of the series.

I particularly enjoyed the section on the landmark Grenada Television films. Producer Michael Cox was determined to be as faithful to the original tales as possible. He and his time began by scrutinizing all sixty of them for the minutest details of time, place, and character traits. The end product of these efforts was The Baker Street File: A Guide to the Appearance and Habits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

It is impossible to watch these films and not be awed by their superb production values. But it would have been an empty exercise without the right actor for the starring role. In casting Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective, Cox and company struck gold:

‘Brett’s performance came like a thunderclap to viewers used to the traditional interpretation of Holmes. Whereas previous Sherlocks tended to fix on individual characteristics of Holmes’s complex personality, Brett presented the full character, warts and all. Not only did Brett’s performance finally replace [Basil] Rathbone’s as Sherlock Holmes in the public mind, but it also changed the public’s understanding of Holmes. No longer was Sherlock a stuffy old-fashioned straight arrow, saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” while being followed around by a doddering old duffer. No, Brett’s Holmes was mesmerizing, brilliant, moody, drug-abusing, and, to be honest, a bit scary.

Here’s a clip from A Scandal in Bohemia. Watson is played by David Burke:

I was thrilled to find this rare film footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it, he talks about what inspired him to create Sherlock Holmes:

On the Mystery Lovers’ Tour of England and Scotland that we took in 2007, we visited the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Initially, we weren’t sure why we were being taken to this particular venue. but as usual, our guides had made a brilliant choice. Once there, we were addressed by Dr. Alan Mackaill, who showed us around a permanent exhibit in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum entitled “The Real Sherlock Holmes.” Dr. Mackaill is the co-author of the book that accompanies this exhibit:  . The gentleman on the right is the legendary Dr. Joseph Bell. On the back of this book, a letter is reproduced. It is on loan to the museum from the Stisted family, who are directed descendants of Dr. Bell. The letter is from Conan Doyle to Bell, and in it, the former states:

“It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes, and though in the tories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the outpatient ward.”

Here is the letter:

My husband and I both recall Dr. Mackaill’s saying that he himself discovered this letter among the documents shown him by the Stisted family. I have not, however, been able to verify this, after the fact.

Click here to see video of Dr. Mackaill giving Scottish actor David Hayman a tour similar to the one he gave our group.


After her talk, Laurie King stayed on to sign books for attendees. Throughout, she was unfailingly gracious and good-humored. She told us that she wanted to highlight libraries during this book tour. Here she is, on yet another occasion, doing just that.


  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Well done, Roberta! You did an excellent job of capturing the highlights of Ms. King’s talk.


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Pauline; praise from my favorite intellectual means a great deal to me!

  2. Frances said,

    Same answer for the query as to why Mary Russell is Jewish…. Yes, LRK has a masters in Old Testament Theology. The rich traditions of Judiasm would come easily to her own fecund mind. In some ways Mary does seem to mirror Laurie… Yet, there was more according to Laurie that she shared in her presentation.
    One important explanatory fact that King made about Mary Russell: she was a child who recently had lost her mother, father and brother to a tragic car accident, she is forced to live in England with an aunt she detests, and she is a young teen on the cusp of womanhood but for the time being totally isolated from all she had known and drawn comfort from. She was alone.
    Making Mary Jewish, her mother was Jewish while her father was not, mirrored what King referred to as the situation of the Jewish community in England at the time, it was isolated in a way it was not in other European countries. King repeated several times that all these factors created and reinforced the picture of a precious teen who was enduring radical isolation. She stumbles upon Holmes as she strode over the downs. Holmes himself was isolated from “typical society” due to his remarkable mental powers, his role as a consulting detective and his retirement to the Sussex downs. Hence, he had given up his role of observer of the criminal world and what we would call forensic science for his role as a Beekeeper. His age also put him past the time for romance. King writes Watson thanking Russell for bringing Holmes back from poor health by which he meant Holmes was on the verge of mental and emotional decline since moving to Sussex. Both characters were drained and suffering. Both Sherlock and Mary were radically alone. It is left to the reader to decide who saves whom. Is that correct English? 🙂 The presentation was lively, humorous and most informative. Laurie seemed to be having great fun. I know for sure, I was, too.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I am deeply grateful to you for taking the time to post this thoughtful comment and to fill in what I left out concerning Friday’s talk.
      I’ll be referencing your comment soon, in another post on this subject.

  3. Scott Monty said,

    Great roundup post! You’re welcome to check us out and comment any time over on the Baker Street Blog at or to listen to two (or more) Sherlockians converse on the audio programme I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere

    Scott Monty, BSI

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Scott!

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