Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review - Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
Published by: Picador
Publication Date: 1994
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Mary Russell one day literally walks into Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs. She has just recovered from a horrific accident and has moved to England to be looked after by her aunt. The war is raging across the channel and there's not much to do but wander the Downs and read, hence the walking into Sherlock Holmes. She is intrigued by this man who is intensely studying the bees and soon an unlikely friendship forms. Mary is smart and underfed, the perfect companion for Holmes and his erstwhile housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes slowly starts to inform Mary's education, choosing her reading material and her course of study, though he will never fully understand her love of theology. While Holmes might be filling his retirement with Mary, the truth is he's never been fully retired, and one day he finally lets Mary help in a case. The daughter of the US Ambassador has been kidnapped while on holiday in Wales. Dressed as gypsies Russell and Holmes find the young girl and return her to her parents. But this case brings them more forcibly onto the radar of Holmes's arch-nemesis. While Mary goes off to Oxford and Holmes stays in the Downs tending his bees, a web is being spun around them, tighter and tighter, until one day it explodes, much like the beehive that Holmes tends that was rigged with a bomb. Russell, Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and even Mycroft are all in danger from this intelligent, resourceful, and determined foe. Holmes decides to take the unexpected step of removing himself from the game with Russell, but this only delays the inevitable. There will be a reckoning, and there will be casualties.

Books that start off slow and build to a climax are a lovely surprise. Books that start off fun and slowly chip away at you until you can't wait to be finished, well those are a different kind of surprise all together. The Beekeeper's Apprentice is of the second kind, sort of. A good solid start was had after an initial wobble, but by the end I was just like Holmes listening to the raving denouement from his tormentor, politely bored. I should have guessed from the beginning that Laurie R. King was the kind of author who would devolve into self-indulgent crap, but I had hopes. Why should I have guessed? That "Editor's Preface" my dear which I tried SO HARD to forget about. That little wobble that started the quake that would bring this book down. In this preface, King sets out to make it seem as if the events we are about to read are real, due to the arrival of a trunk stuffed full of mementos from the life of one Mary Russell. While there's the part of me that got a frisson of excitement thinking how wonderful it would be if such a trunk showed up on my doorstep, it's what King sets out to do with this trunk that baffled me. I mean, obviously as a half-way intelligent reader you've realized you're holding one of the "manuscripts" that reside at the bottom of said trunk, what I don't get is the implications this casts on King herself. King is not only devaluing what she has done in writing this book, claiming it to be Russell's, but there's the plagiarism accusation. An accusation she is willing to embrace. In other words, King is proudly proclaiming herself to be a plagiarist and her publisher a willing accomplice. Um... what now? I'm about to read an entire book by an author who will tear herself down in order to make a joke that falls completely flat? Seriously? I am baffled. It sets the book on a weird footing and no matter how hard you try to forget this, there's a part of you that remembers and cringes and knows, this could all go very pear shaped, very fast.   

This faux whimsy of King's backfires to the extent that you start to question everything she writes. She obviously doesn't take herself seriously, which I will admit is something more writers need to do, but she isn't just lighthearted she denigrates herself with a knowing wink, like her writing isn't good enough. Because of this we don't think her writing is good enough, and it is sadly brought home on every single page. Just look to how she handles Holmes. The way Holmes is different as filtered through the perception of Mary Russell versus Watson rings false again and again. He is different, and this story needed him to be, but he is TOO different. He is the Holmes of the daydreams of a fifteen year old girl with serious daddy issues. He is oddly more romantic and sentimental than Watson would ever have dared say lest a vicious tongue-lashing was to come. His desire to solve crimes isn't based on boredom but a deep seated love of humanity. In other words, he's a big old cuddly teddy bear and Mary Russell is the first one to ever really get that. If there had been some ring of truth to this description than it might have been believable, instead I felt like this book was nothing more than fanfic masquerading as fiction, or faux nonfiction as King would have us "believe." Here's the thing about fanfic, it's fine, it's good to have it in the world, it's just not good if you're book exudes it. This way does Casandra Clare and other such hack writers lie. Your book can have it's birth in fanfic, it just must rise above. It must become something more, something new. While Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories could technically be considered Jane Austen fanfic, or Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles Sailor Moon fanfic, neither reads as such, because they have become something more. The Beekeeper's Apprentice isn't something more.

In fact, it goes all the way to hetfic, with Mary and Holmes being set up to eventually "get it on." And this is where my head goes boom. Just no. No no no. First, Holmes is of the asexual variety of humans. He can not be concerned with the workings of the heart, it takes up space needed in his brain for other things, much like he doesn't know the earth goes around the sun. But then again, here we have the overly sentimental Holmes of Russell's imagination. It's like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, there is nothing I hate more than his relationship with Amy, largely to do with casting, which was just consummated as I write this. It's out of character. These are people above hanky panky, thank you very much. Cerebral over physical. But it's so much more than that. There's the creep factor. Holmes is fifty-two when he meets just turned fifteen Mary. This would make him a pedophile people. Sure nothing "happens" for years, but look what he's doing during those years? He's training her, he's helping her learn his secrets, he's grooming her. Child grooming: IE, what pedophiles do! This is the elephant in the room. It's not the thirty-seven year age difference, it's when the relationship started that is all manners of ew. It's like the current Doctor on Doctor Who getting it on with one of Clara's students, and yes, the age difference is exactly the same! Yes Mary claims she views him as a father figure but doesn't that just make this even more creepy? Am I the only one calling ick? And I'm not even getting into the whole dressing like a boy factor! Looking to see what my friends thought I can't understand how they are all praise and no, hang on a minute this is creepy. Just no. I can definitively say that I won't ever be picking up another book in this series if just for the ew factor.

Though the icky fanfic aspect of this book isn't the only problem I have. King said she set out to write this book to show what Sherlock Holmes would be like if he were born a she in the 20th century. OK, interesting concept to think about. OK, I've thought about it, and I think not. Russell is NOT the 20th century's answer to Sherlock Holmes. Not even going into the whole "Mary Sue" of it all, she can't be the new Sherlock Holmes because he was self-formed and she is obviously formed by Sherlock. She might have had the raw material to become him, but had to have him do it for her. She wasn't going around analyzing dirt at a young age. She wasn't trying to decipher different cigarette ash in her spare time. All she is is a smart girl who is opinionated, religious, had a traumatic incident in her life, and stumbled into Sherlock Holmes's life and was cooed over till she became irreversibly his creature. Not a woman of her own making. If we take out the Jessica Jones backstory and use the actual Sherlock mold, self-made genius, sibling, etc, who we get isn't Mary Russell, it's Flavia De Luce! Alan Bradley who is obviously a far more well honed Sherlockian than King could ever hope to be, understood the nuances needed. This is all just bold brushstrokes. In fact I think I could pick out anyone from literature at random from the "bright young people" and they would have the necessary spark, the dazzling wit, and the intelligence that Mary seems to so "uniquely" have. Ugh. Just. Ugh. Why couldn't Mary have been blown to bits again? Oh yeah, because she's the "star" of this book.

And Mary is a stupid little idiot. Yes, that is redundant, but she's so freakin' stupid that I CAN NOT mention it enough. OK, let me highlight the number one reason why she is stupid. Yes, there are many, many examples, but one in particular made me psychically wince at the stupidity of it all and the laziness of the writing. Especially because it's shown as an example of how much smarter she is than everyone else, someone save me. In my mind it shows how f'ing stupid everyone else is. So the evil villain mastermind what-have-you slashed a message in roman numerals into the seat of Holmes's cab. Holmes and Russell don't really get around to deciphering it until they are on their way back from the holy land and they are stumped. Some two months later while sitting in the Bodleian, Russell has a eureka moment and realizes that it spells out "Moriarty" using the most simplistic alpha numeric code ever devised. First let's take into account that all along the two crime solvers were musing about how this new mastermind was so like Moriarty. Wouldn't you just, I don't know, see if the word carved into the leather was Moriarty first and foremost? I know I would! And if they had, well, I guess the book would have been a lot shorter. Instead this "mystery" is strung out for MONTHS. I have read oh so many Sherlock Holmes inspired books at this point and several of them went into code breaking and ciphers. Many concentrated on the Vigenère cipher because it's hard to crack without the keyword, but is still easy to understand if you're not into cryptanalysis. But here A = 1 and B= 2, oh yippee, let me get this first grader to solve it for you Russell. Well, personally, I'm not stupid enough to pick up any more of this series. Be on your merry way Mary, never shall we meet again. Stupid bint.


I remember reading this book way back in 1998..the books in this series don't get any better after this - in fact, Mary's presence (and King's interest in theology) dominate the books to the point where they go beyond Doyle's frame of reference and the reader is left wondering, "Who loves these books enough for the series to continue as long as it has..and why do they love it so?"

King didn't invent that whole "this novel is actually a belatedly-discovered manuscript written by one of Holmes' real-life associates which I acquired and decided to publish" routine. Nicholas Meyer did. At least, the introductory materials for the novel version of "The Seven Per Cent Solution" (a 1980's--I think--bestseller which seems to have kicked off the last few decades' trend of Holmes fanfic as a significant publishing/media phenomenon) were the first place I ever saw an author claiming to actually be the discoverer/"editor" of some document actually penned by one of Holmes' intimates (Watson, in the case of Meyers' "The Seven Per Cent Solution").

Oh, I'm sure it probably goes back even farther than the 1970s. I bet there were pastiches that are concurrent with Conan Doyle's writing if one were to look that used this gimmick.

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