If you think Sherlock Holmes is marvelous, but vastly benefits from the presence of a smart, determined woman willing to call him out, then Laurie King’s first Holmes and Russel book is definitely for you.
Cocaine, communism, and adventure in 1920s Melbourne! The Honorable Phryne Fisher (glamorous, free-spirited, handy with a pistol) is on the case of smugglers and poisoners, with her ever-expanding entourage in tow.
Enola Holmes’ mother has vanished, and her brothers are determined to send her to boarding school. Add in a daring disguise, a kidnapped marquess, and a series of knife-wielding villains, and you’ve got the first book in the Enola Holmes series. These are witty, wildly entertaining children’s books which feature a really fantastic protagonist and aren’t afraid of confronting issues of gender, class, prejudice, and Very Seedy Characters in Victorian London.
Mr. Holmes (in theaters now!). In 1947, struggling with memory loss, an aging Sherlock Holmes comes out of retirement to revisit one final unsolved case that has continued to haunt him.
In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes and, since he entered the public domain, the legend of the world’s most famous detective continues to grow. From solving cases in Minnesota to contemplating his own existence, Holmes has seemingly done it all. However, like the film, these stories take place after the man with the deerstalker hat put away his magnifying glass. These are…the retirement Holmes.
Here’s a gift to you bibliophiles out there who haven’t yet met Mary Russell. Here is the first sentence of her debut in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. The twelfth book in the series, Garment of Shadows, is out in September, so now’s the time to get current!
“The words given voice inside the mind are not always clear, however; they can be gentle and elliptical, what the prophets call the bat qol, the daughter of the voice of God, she who speaks in whispers and half-seen images.”
The Baker Street Babes have mentioned Laurie King’s Mary Russell series so many times and with such great affection on their podcast that I figured I finally needed to give it a go. I’m a little shy of halfway through the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I’m loving it so far. So much so that I had to take a break from work to do a quick sketch of Russell as she appears in my mind from King’s descriptions.
The next few weeks are all about getting ready for Sherlock Seattle, so I finally finished this portrait of Mary Russell. More bees and Holmesian things coming up, hopefully. Prints of this will be available at Sherlock Seattle.
It has been a real pleasure re-reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, a book that I always forget I how much love until I am reading it. I am glad it’s gotten a nice tidy Twentieth Anniversary Edition, because though I recently became the last person on tumblr to watch Sherlock and liked it quite a bit, this series is my favorite version of the Holmes re-tellings.
That being said, I know it is anathema to request textual changes when publishing an anniversary edition, but I really wish they had done so here. Why? Well, because one of the first cases on which Mary Russell assists Sherlock Holmes, she helps rescue a young kidnapped girl named Jessica. JESSICA SIMPSON. Oh dear. It’s so distracting! I know that in 1994 our modern Jessica Simpson was still singing in church camp or something. I certainly don’t mean to blame King for not predicting the course of pop music. But I don’t think it would have been such a problem to do a search and replace and have kidnapped a young Victoria Simpson, for example. Nothing would have been lost except the opportunity to imagine a young Jessica Simpson trapped in a tree in period garb, mumbling to herself about whether she had chicken or tuna for dinner.
Anyway, if you can overlook that, and you’ve not read this series, take this opportunity to get started, especially since apparently we will be waiting another year for more Sherlock. A mystery for non-mystery readers, equally good for teens and adults, and, I bet, to be adored by fans of Flavia de Luce.
Adroit and orphaned teenager Mary Russell (Eleanor Tomlinson) becomes friends with the retired Sherlock Holmes (Daniel Day-Lewis) when she physically stumbles over him in the Sussex Downs in 1915. From that moment on the two take on an unforeseen relationship, with Russell first learning his various methods of deduction through an informal but profound apprenticeship, and then through a full partnership when they take on the case of a little girl’s abduction. But Russell’s education and Holmes’s experience are put to the test when an unknown bomber threatens their lives and everything they hold dear. Also starring Jodhi May, Oded Fehr, and Jonathan Pryce as Doctor Watson.
And you, Russell. How was your day?”
“Highly satisfactory, thank you, from beginning to end. Despite the fact that it’s between terms in Oxford, I have sixty-seven writing samples. I also picked up the information the colonel wanted. Bought two books, one of them out of print since 1902. Had a nice chat with a few friends over a pie and a pint, and met an odd man named Tolkien, a reader in English literature at Leeds who has a passion for early Anglo-Saxon poetry and runes and such. And, oh yes, I found where Miss Ruskin was on that missing Tuesday afternoon.
Mary Russell meets J.R.R. Tolkien, in Laurie R. King’s A Letter of Mary
Doyle never did tell us what Sherlock Holmes got up to after he retired to a cottage in Sussex, so, much like the Hiatus, that part of his life is a free-for-all for pastiche and fanfiction writers. Whether it turns out that he was Moriarty all along, or slowly succumbs to his addiction, or indeed deteriorates due to dementia – many, many writers have had their wicked way with Holmes-past-fifty.
Laurie R. King is no exception. And so, twenty years ago, Mary Russell entered the scene, fifteen years old, with her nose in a book, wandering in the Sussex Downs to escape her overbearing aunt, and literally fell over Sherlock Holmes. What happened next is the subject of a series of, to date, thirteen books.
While it’s not the point of this post to sell the series to you, it very much is the point of this post to tell you about some reasons Russell is awesome – seven, to be precise. So I’ll get started on that without further ado, and leave you to make up your mind as to whether this is a lady you’d like to hang out with.
When we first meet her, she has her nose in a book because she is studying for the entrance exams at Oxford University. The studying pays off and she eventually graduates with a double degree in theology and chemistry.
From the word go, she is absolutely Holmes’ intellectual equal: when she first encounters him, she deduces him as follows:
“I’d say the blue spots are a better bet, if you’re trying for another hive,” I told him. “The ones you’ve only marked with red are probably from Mr Warner’s rchard. The blue spots are farther away, but they’re almost sure to be wild ones.” […]
“How do you come to know of my interests?”
“I should have thought it obvious […] I see paint on your pocket-handkerchief, and traces on your fingers where you wiped it away. The only reason to mark bees that I can think of is to enable one to follow them to their hive. You are either interested in gathering honey or in the bees themselves, and it is not the time of year to harvest honey. Three months ago we had an unusual cold spell that killed many hives. Therefore I assume that you are tracking these in order to replenish your own stock.”
Sherlock Holmes is not the only one who can play this game, and this is only the first of many examples of Russell smarts. I could only ever imagine Holmes being interested in someone if they were on the same intellectual level, and Russell exemplifies that. She subsequently proves herself capable at languages and chess as well as her chosen university subjects.
There’s a bit of a cliché that you’re meant to not be able to deal with the real world if you’re a very bookish person, but Russell proves this wrong as well. On their first proper case, Holmes and her get followed by a pack of vicious hounds. Holmes is about to unleash a drug on them, but Russell faces them down by shouting at them as you would at a gaggle of naughty children.
While this is certainly a showpiece that displays that she has powers she is perhaps unaware of (more on that later), I think it can be argued that the way she deals with her living circumstances is badass right in and of itself. Her parents have left her orphaned at a young age, so at the start of the series she is living in a foreign country (she’s of American extraction) with an overbearing relative who doesn’t like her very much. Yet instead of grudgingly accepting her situation, she takes active steps to ensure she can get out of there – and I am sure being a young woman at Oxford University in the 1920s was not much of a piece of cake.
She gets to put Holmes in his place.
Oh, does she ever. Holmes is more of a background figure throughout the series, at least in the early volumes. Russell gets to show him his boundaries, but most of all, she gets to call him on it when he does something unacceptable – one of the early examples in the series is when he deduces her and takes it too far, as he always does, and realises this. After which she lets him finish and then proceeds to take apart his reasoning and point out the flaws.
This is something I greatly miss from the original stories and most adaptations with the notable exception of Elementary (which, in my mind, has more in common with this series than with ACD canon anyway). Here’s a bit from MREG when he has knocked her out “for her own good” – a thing that I think is never okay, and Russell has the same opinion:
I pulled back, and I hit him—nothing fancy, just a good, traditional, lady’s open-handed slap that had all the muscles of my arm behind it. It rattled his teeth and nearly sent him back into the river. I glared furiously at him.
“Never, never do that again!”
“Russell! I did not—”
“Knock me out and leave me behind—Holmes, how could you?”
“There was no time for a discussion,” he pointed out.
“That is no excuse,” I said illogically. “Never even think of doing something like that again!”
Holmes has had a punch in the face about his arsehole tendencies coming since about 1894, but since Watson never quite stepped up to the challenge (at least not until the BBC adaptation came along), I’m glad someone got there.
She gets to travel.
Don’t get me wrong, I love London and I love the ACD stories, but the furthest Holmes and Watson ever go from London is to other parts of England. Russell and Holmes’ adventures take them to Dartmoor (obligatory stop for any pastiche series), Palestine, America, and India. Next up is Japan, which I’m greatly looking forward to. She adapts to all manner of different social customs and languages with ease (though she relies on a disguise once). She also gets to confront people’s hang-ups about women and her relationship with Holmes, and because she’s younger she gets to do stuff that Holmes isn’t able to do.
Her story continues after the marriage.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Russell and Holmes get married at the end of the second book, because it’s the basis of the conceit of the rest of the series. I’m not going to spend much ink on Mary Sue debates here, but I feel compelled to point out that I really don’t know that many female characters whose stories continue after they get married to whoever it was the plot was setting them up with. For these two, I feel the marriage is more like a socially acceptable excuse from the writer to keep them around each other so that the series can continue. Also, the way it happens at the end of MREG, right after the showdown of the case and after Russell has had to fish Holmes out of the water and given him a decent box on the ears for underestimating her, is one of my favourite marriage proposals in literature. It’s too long to quote but you can <a href=”http://www.scribd.com/doc/213604533/Russell-Holmes-02-A-Monstrous-Regiment-of-Women”>find it online</a>.
She grows over the course of the series.
Russell is fifteen when the series starts, but as it continues she grows from an awkward teenager into a capable young woman. She’s a feminist, she gets involved with people on the margins of society despite being a young lady of means, she gets to confronts the ghosts of her own and Holmes’ past, and she gets to develop security in herself. It’s been a pleasure getting through my teens and twenties alongside her, and I’m happy she’s still around now I’ve hit thirty. (She hasn’t yet, the lucky sod.)
She’s one of not very many “female Watsons” I know of.
Watson is everyman, for sure, and if you ask BSB Lyndsay whose shoes she’d want to walk in, it would be Watson’s. In the Canon, definitely, but in the realm of pastiche, I’d slip into Russell’s shoes at any time, although, as mentioned before, Joan Watson from Elementary is some serious competition. They get to hang out with Holmes, but they also get to do their own thing. And every so often, it’s nice to have a character to inhabit and walk alongside that you don’t have to cross gender divides for.
I hope we get to read a few more of Russell and Holmes’ adventures before the author decides she’s had enough of them.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted, enacted, pastiched and parodied characters in literature. Here are a few favorite homages to the Great Detective, posted in honor of Melanie, who is searching for meaning in her life now that she’s finished series three of Sherlock.