The Beekeeper’s Apprentice begins when fifteen-year-old Mary Russell, living with an aunt in England following the deaths of both her parents in America, is out walking one day and almost steps on a man who is sitting on a hill watching bees. This man happens to be the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, who has retired to the Sussex countryside. In Mary, Holmes finds a mind as intelligent and observant as his own, and the two soon become friends, with Holmes teaching Mary everything he knows about detection. Soon Mary finds herself working with the detective on what will be the first of many cases they’ll solve together and even after Mary leaves home to study theology at Oxford University, their friendship remains as strong as ever.
A lot of time in the first half of this book is spent introducing us to the characters and relating a few of Mary and Holmes’ earliest cases (one involving a woman whose husband is suffering from a mysterious illness and another involving an American senator’s kidnapped daughter). These two cases, and the third main one, appear to be unrelated at first but they do all add to the bigger picture. There was a section in the middle of the book where Mary and Holmes go to Palestine which didn’t seem to have much relevance to the plot, though I’ve since learned that we find out more about that in a later book in the series.
There were so many things to enjoy about this book: great characters, some intriguing mysteries to solve, a setting that I loved (the early 20th century, during and following World War I). I also liked the way the book began with Laurie R. King telling us that she had nothing to do with the book and had simply received a mysterious box of manuscripts written by Mary Russell herself. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is therefore presented as if it was the first instalment of Mary’s memoirs, with her older self looking back on her younger days and the beginning of her relationship with Sherlock Holmes.
Most of all, I loved Mary Russell’s witty and engaging narrative voice. Her friendship with Holmes feels so natural and there’s some great dialogue between the two of them. The huge age difference (39 years, I think) is slightly disturbing when you think about it, considering Mary is only fifteen at the beginning, but it didn’t come across that way at all in the novel. Despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, Mary and Holmes have a lot in common and Mary is Holmes’ equal when it comes to spotting clues and making deductions. I loved the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes too; he felt much more human and likeable than the Holmes I remember. And as they spend more time together, both characters change with Mary maturing into a confident young woman and Holmes eventually coming to accept her as his partner.
You might be wondering if it’s necessary to have read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books first, but no, I don’t think it’s necessary at all (there are some references to people and events from the original books, but nothing that would prevent you from understanding this book). I have read Conan Doyle’s books, but it was a long time ago and I wasn’t really a huge fan, which I think might have actually made it easier for me to accept this depiction of Holmes and the other characters.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover these books (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was published in 1994). The one advantage of coming to the series so late is that there are now another ten books to read without having to wait for each one to be published. I can’t wait to spend more time with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes and hopefully I’ll have many happy hours of reading ahead!