The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, With Some Notes Upon the Segregation of the Queen

One part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz is a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time. Week two: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes novel, published 1994; one of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Associations’ 100 Best Novels of the Century.


If A Grave Talent had as its underlying theme what Rembrandt would look like as a woman, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice addresses the question, What would the brilliant, cold, and egocentric mind of Sherlock Holmes look like set in a young woman? The original title was, The Segregation of the Queen, taken from the subtitle of Sherlock Holmes’ book about beekeeping. In 1915, a young orphan named Mary Russell befriends and becomes the apprentice of a retired consulting detective living on England’s South Downs:

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.

After a long life in private practice, Holmes is confronted by a young person with the potential to become his student. Not at all certain about it, nonetheless he harnesses her voracious mind to the discipline of his trade, teaches her all he knows, and watches with bemusement—and some alarm—as she grows beyond the status of student into a full-fledged partner, just in time for a deadly foe to come into view.

The book plays on a mixed analogy of “queen” images: In the game of chess she and Holmes are playing, Russell the pawn is made into a queen. And to draw on the techniques of beekeeping, Holmes must then segregate her in order to carry out the investigation.

One of the drawbacks of the Conan Doyle stories is a thing that also make them so intriguing: The reader, seeing through the eyes of Dr Watson, never really follows the lightning-fast reasoning process of the great detective. However, in Russell, the reader is given a window into a mind both remarkably similar yet revealingly different: the Victorian detective reborn as a young, Twentieth century, female and feminist individual.

And when they meet, sparks inevitably fly.

Comments

  1. Ah yes, the start of it all … oh how I love this book! I’ve gotten lots of other people into the series by lending them my copy of this book. 🙂

  2. Tim Harness says:

    After going to see Robert Downey jr. as Holmes, I suspect an adaptation of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice might make good use of Mr. Downey’s considerable skills.

  3. Yes, Tim! But who would play Mary? BEEK is one of my all time favorite books. I came to love it after avoiding it for fear that it would sully The Canon. How wrong I was!

  4. strawberry curls says:

    “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes…”
    One of the greatest opening lines ever!! This book sucked me in from the first page and has taken me on a wonderful journey that is still surprising me each and every day. Thank you, Laurie R. King!!

  5. TheMadLibrarian says:

    I Aided in the Corruption of Minors by suggesting to our teen lit group at the library they might enjoy BEEK, as a diversion from some of the ‘heavier’ literature they had read before. As a result, you have several new Russell fans continuing on with the series.

  6. Susan Morrison says:

    The Beekeepers Apprentice is in the small number of books in my library which have had the dubious honor of more than one purchase because 1. if I lent it out I wanted a copy in the house and 2. I wore it out with re reading. I love the whole series, but this is the one I reread the most.

  7. smilesandsheep says:

    I was fourteen when I first met Mary Russell. In the nine-ish years since that day and a half of feverishly turned pages, I’ve introduced her to both of my sisters, my grandmother, several friends, and the occasional friend’s friend or friend’s aunt. Thank-you for this character and these books, Laurie King.

  8. I walked by BEEK sitting forlornly on a shelf in my local library, and had to stop. I’d read and loved the Canon as a child, but I was wary of this book. That first sentence hooked me, though, and I inhaled the series as fast as possible. BEEK will always have a special place in my heart and on the shelf in my library.

  9. O yes, O yes. I avoided this series because I was POSitive I’d be disappointed. boy, did I get a wrong number. This opener has to be one of the best in the crime fiction universe, and sooo visual. Dear Laurie, thanks again.//Meredith

  10. I took a year or so to come to the Russells, after reading the Martinellis, but then couldn’t resist the lure of quality writing and decided that I would try them – how glad am I, all these years later! I’ve only read it once, but I pick up the books all the time and read random passages for the pure pleasure of the prose.

    Delighted to see this morning that we have a new edition of BEEK coming out in the UK this summer, to coincide with our God of the Hive.

    All the best 🙂
    Chris

  11. Poetic Justice says:

    I first read this book when I was 13 after my mom’s friend lent it to her. She never read it, but I’ve read it four times now! I moved on to the actual Conan Doyle stories after devouring Mary Russell, but I have to say I like Russell much better. She has much more dry wit than Watson ever credited Holmes with.

    Glad to hear that there will be another Russell book in 2011! I don’t know if I can wait even that long.

  12. Belle Savage says:

    I first read the Canon from my father’s copy of the collected works of Sherlock Holmes. I think I have read about every pastiche written, so when I saw The Beekeeper’s Apprentice I grabbed it. Then I read it again. A whole new vista of the universe of Sherlock Holmes. Then I passed it along to my daughter. Please keep writing as long as the juices flow.

  13. Gorgeous, gorgeous series. I’ve described these books as “thinkers’ fiction” and passed around my loner-copies so many times that they’re ragged and battered. They’ve been hauled along through mud and rain, out in the snow and hiking through the Arizona desert; I imagine I’ll take them a lot more places too before I have to replace them with new versions.

    Thank you for writing these; I sincerely hope that you had as much joy in creating them as we have in discovering them. ^_^

  14. If Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes in a film version of BEEK, then Natalie Portman must play Mary.

    I remember finding this book when it was first published and followed it through to O Jerusalem. Wish I knew there were even more! Now I’ll have to go back and find my old copies… or just buy the entire set over again.

    Thank you Ms. King, for creating such a wonderful, strong female role model for young Holmes fans everywhere.

  15. I recently discovered this book series, and quite frankly, I was amazed at the quality and intelligence. I’m a widely read teenager who loves a book that makes me think, but can’t seem to find any that are actually… fun. I rank the Mary Russell series with “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, “As You Like It”, and “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. (Believe me, that’s high praise. I hold Wilde, Shakespere, and Christie in the same sort of esteem Professor Higgins held Milton in Pygmalion.)

  16. I first became aware of the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes novels through the superb adaptation by Shaun Prendergast for BBC Radio 4. I have long since purchased a paperback copy of the book itself, but for the life of me I cannot find a halfway decent site from which I can download the BBC recordings. Those sites that do have it are either “pirate” sites or they charge a membership fee, which, since I am slogging my way through an SSDI appeal, simply cannot afford. Can anyone suggest a truly reputable site from which I CAN download the recordings? I don’t mind using torrents, but a direct download would work too. Thanks in advance for any help or suggestions!

  17. Hi, this is Sarah from Korea
    I’m currently working on a project at school and the topic of my project is to research on how moderns books are influenced by the society today. I am mainly focusing on ‘Sherlock Holmes’ because after reading ‘The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice,’ it felt new and interesting to read such a book that talks about Sherlock Holmes and other characters in original Sherlock Holmes series in different perspective. I hope you don’t mind asking a few questions about your novel. I just want to get some ideas and your own opinions on these questions.

    1. What inspired you to write this book- socially/personally influenced?
    2. Why choosing Sherlock Holmes (out of all the other famous and popular detective characters)?
    3. Do you think moderns books are influenced by modern culture, thoughts, morals?

  18. Hi this is Sarah from Korea,
    I’m currently working on a project at school and the topic of my project is to research on how modern books are influenced by the society today. I am mainly focusing on ‘Sherlock Holmes’ because after reading your book ‘The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice,’ it felt interesting and new to read such book that talks about Sherlock Holmes and other characters of the original Sherlock Holmes series in different perspectives. I hope you don’t mind asking a few questions about your novel. I just want to get some ideas and your opinions on these following questions:

    1. What inspired you to write this book- socially/personally influenced?
    2. Why choosing Sherlock Holmes (out of all the other famous and well-known detective characters)?
    3. Do you think moderns books are influenced by modern culture, thoughts? morals?

  19. I hesitated, too, at first to read Bee Keeper’s Apprentice – I loved the Canon and the BBC adaptations, but had read some really awful books ‘based on Sherlock Holmes’ being ‘in love’ and a totally inappropriate character – but I couldn’t resist and as others have said, was immediately ‘hooked’ on that first line! Would love to see it made into a movie, but don’t think Robert Downey, Jr. would exactly fit the bill – and know Jude Law wasn’t her idea of Dr. Holmes! Then there’s Mary – that would be very difficult! “Locked Rooms” is my favorite book and I’ve read it so many times, I’m sure I have it memorized! Now THAT would be a great movie! Thanks, Mrs. King – hope Holmes finds the fountain of youth and the books go on and on!

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