It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Laurie King’s mystery novels. I read the first of her Mary Russell- Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, back when it came out in 1996, and have eagerly snapped each of them up as they came out ever since. I reviewed her ninth Russell mystery, The Language of Bees, back in July 2009. That book ended on a heart-stopping cliffhanger, with the characters we cared about separated and in danger, and I have waited all this time for its closely-related sequel, The God of the Hive, to finish the story.
The book begins literally at the very moment the last book ended. Russell, her granddaughter Estelle on her back, is running from the scene of a death, knowing herself to be hunted by determined and dangerous men. Holmes is headed in the other direction with his badly-wounded son, sailing between the Orkney Islands in search of medical help. Both find the help they need, but in completely unexpected ways, and the plot unfolds from there at a breathtakingly rapid clip, involving religious cults, shell-shocked soldiers, artists’ communes, government conspiracy, and the strangest funeral I may ever have read about.
I won’t go farther than that in describing the plot, for fear of giving away too much. I don’t want to spoil the actual elements of what happens, since King’s artistry involves suspense and surprise. But I will talk a little bit about my reactions to the book, since that was a bit of a surprise for me, too.
One of the things I enjoy most about the Russell-Holmes mysteries is the excellent partnership between the two detectives. Over the years, it’s evolved from a master-apprentice relationship to a true partnership, in which each person relies on the other and supplies strength for weakness. The interplay is strong and dry with a touch of humor (I sound like I’m describing a good wine!) So I was a bit disappointed at first when I realized that nearly the entire book would take place with Holmes and Russell separated from each other. The book has a bit of a rocky start, finding its stride as a sequel, locating all the characters and reminding us of who and where everyone is, and I think this was made worse for me because I kept waiting for Russell and Holmes to find each other.
As I read, however, this disappointment gradually turned to warm pleasure. As good as the Russell-Holmes partnership is, it was wonderful to see Russell entirely on her own, in her element, using her finely-honed intelligence and skills to solve the unique problems she was presented with. The book’s structure was uncomfortable for me at first, but it meant that the characters could grow and develop. The same was true of a later plot development (about which I won’t go into further detail) that made me angry at first, then thoughtful, then eager to see what King would make of it. This has been true of King’s work throughout the series — she doesn’t permit her novels to fall into a comfortable formula or rut. It’s the mark of a really good novelist, not just someone who turns out the books that her readers expect.
The God of the Hive was wonderful. I haven’t even mentioned the character of Robert Goodman, whose wild and unpredictable presence in the novel made me love him more than any of King’s other secondary characters. She has always made us understand and care about myth and about human beings: the combination of the two in one was truly extraordinary. The conclusion to the novel was powerful and profound, satisfying enough for two books instead of one. If you haven’t read this series, I really could not recommend it more highly. I think mysteries are hard to get right. Laurie King is one who gets them absolutely right.