I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first of Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mystery novels, in 1995. I remember it fondly: I was in graduate school at the time, and working at a bookstore, and the second book in the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, had just come out on the shelves. Paul, one of my co-workers, handed me the paperback of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
“You’ll like this,” he said. “It’s about a smart girl.” Oh Paul, how you knew me! I tumbled into the world of the fifteen-year-old Mary and her mentor, Holmes, as they learned to work together, trust each other, and battle a diabolically intelligent enemy. I was hooked, completely delighted by Laurie King’s prose, research, narrative voice, and perhaps most of all what Paul pointed out: the way she allows Mary to be as intelligent as the intimidating Holmes, and also a whole person with fears, humor, friendships, weaknesses and strengths. In the light of these novels, Holmes too reveals new sides of his character, and the apparent mismatch becomes the perfect partnership.
The Language of Bees is the ninth in the Mary Russell series, and I am delighted to say that the books have only gotten better. This one opens as the exhausted couple returns from a year packed with adventures, including those told in Justice Hall, The Game, and Locked Rooms. (One of the nice things about this particular volume is that it settles the chronology of events a little more satisfactorily.) Mary and Holmes are looking forward to a rest after their travel, but before they can even settle down to eat dinner, they find a new client on their patio, asking for assistance.
Or maybe not precisely new. Mary and Holmes have met Damian Adler once before, just after the War, when he was accused (and exonerated) of murder. Now he’s appeared again, asking their help in a desperate search for his wife and child. The search leads them into strange territory: a bizarre religious cult, the neolithic sites of Britain, the shadowy world of Bohemian London, and even the streets of Shanghai. Stranger still is that Holmes may be protecting the suspect, for reasons of his own, leaving Mary in a darker place than she’s been in any of their previous investigations.
This installment in the Russell-Holmes mysteries was wonderful. It was thrillingly suspenseful — I hardly wanted to put it down — yet it was so deliciously well-written, revealing so much about the characters, that I hardly wanted it to end. It’s made me want to undertake a re-read of all nine of the books (though when that will happen I don’t know; I don’t seem to be doing much re-reading these days.) And the ending, which I won’t say another word about, is simultaneously maddening and perfect. It edges onto some territory that will be familiar for faithful readers: King often writes about odd corners of the religious world, and of course that is one of Russell’s areas of expertise. But none of it feels like a retread. On the contrary, everything, including the developing relationship between Russell and Holmes, feels fresh and fascinating. If you are not already a fan of Laurie King’s, I can only feel envious at the treat you have in store. If you are, then this is a little gift-wrapped gem for your collection. Either way, hie you to a bookstore or library and start The Language of Bees on your way home.