The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

2024 marks the 30th anniversary of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, an outstanding mystery novel by Laurie R. King, featuring an older Sherlock Holmes and his new partner, a half-American teenager, Mary Russell.  The novel begins in 1915, as World War I rages in Europe and the guns can be heard across the Channel.  Holmes has retired to the Sussex Downs, where he lives in an isolated cottage and raises bees.  One spring day, Mary literally stumbles over him while she is out for a walk, reading a book.  A friendship soon develops between them, as Mary takes lessons from Holmes in beekeeping, science, and detection.  Holmes, who at first is disdainful of women, soon recognizes the brilliance of this teenage girl, and she becomes his apprentice and, later, his full partner in crime-solving.

Mary is an orphan who has recently lost her whole family in a car accident which, as it turns out, was her fault, and she bears a burden of guilt that becomes clear later in the novel. (If I remember correctly from a later novel in the series, though, the accident turned out to be murder, and was not entirely Mary’s fault.)  She has inherited a large amount of money and lives in a farmhouse with her guardian, a disagreeable aunt.  As Mary explains, she is the one with the money and her aunt lives with her, instead of Mary living with the aunt. 

I love Mary’s character, and I think she is really the one who makes the series a success, even more than Holmes.  She is highly intelligent and studies theology and chemistry at Oxford, in between cases.  She is the daughter of a British Jewish mother and an American non-Jewish father, and spent her childhood in England and, later, in San Francisco before the accident.  Her deductive abilities are equal to Holmes’, and she is highly talented in mathematics and chess.  Holmes is amazed when she beats him at chess for the first time.  Mathematical puzzles and chess games feature prominently in the book, and this aspect reminds me of another of my favorite novels, The Eight by Katherine Neville, even though the plot itself is not similar.  Another element I love in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is Mary’s circle of friends at Oxford, which includes Dorothy Sayers, who takes a break from translating Dante to go to a concert with Mary.  The British feminist movement plays a role here but becomes more prominent in the second book in the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice takes place from 1915 through 1919, covering the years of World War I and taking Mary from a traumatized girl to a confident young woman and brilliant detective.  It is really a coming-of-age story for Mary, in addition to a mystery.  The relationship between Mary and Holmes also grows deeper.  By the end, there are slight hints at a romantic relationship, and I don’t think I’d be spoiling things by saying that eventually Mary and Holmes get married. Not in this book, though.  I think the marriage happens in the third book, but by now it’s common knowledge to anyone who follows the series that they’re husband and wife.  (And I know of some people who won’t read the series because they don’t like the idea of a married Holmes.  That is their loss, though.)

Mary’s development as a detective takes her through several cases which increase in complexity and danger. First, she and Holmes solve the relatively simple case of the poisoning of a nearby landowner.  Then Mary has her own case where she finds a thief who robbed an inn in the village.  The stakes become higher when the daughter of an American senator is kidnapped in Wales, and Holmes and Mary wander, in disguise, through the Welsh countryside to find the girl and return her to her parents.  They succeed, of course, and catch the kidnappers, but it turns out the men are working for someone much higher up in a criminal organization, and the person behind the kidnapping eludes Holmes and Mary, at least for the time being.

Then comes the most complex case, the one at the heart of the novel, when Holmes is injured by a bomb that explodes in one of his beehives, and another bomb is left on Mary’s doorstep.  They realize that someone is targeting Holmes, and everyone associated with him, including his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, who has been like a second mother to Mary, and Watson.  It is Mary who first thinks of warning Watson about the bombs, and Holmes is angry with himself for not thinking of it.  As it turns out, Mary was right, and a bomb explodes at Watson’s house just after he listens to Mary’s warning and takes refuge, with Holmes at Mary, at Holmes’ brother Mycroft’s house.  (Some people do not like the characterization of Watson in King’s series and say that his character fits into the popular misconception of Watson as stupid.  In Doyle’s originals, that’s not true.  He’s not stupid.  He’s just not as intelligent as Holmes.  But even if King’s Watson is not very intelligent, he is lovable and loyal. Mary comes to call him “Uncle John.”)

The bomber dies in the explosion at Watson’s house, but of course he is not the main criminal.  He is working for an elusive criminal mastermind. Holmes and Mary follow their adversary’s footsteps all over London, taking hansom cabs and finding disguises in Holmes’ bolt-holes, where he stores costumes, weapons, and anything else he might need, in various parts of the city.  Their enemy always manages to stay a step ahead of them, though, and Holmes and Mary realize they are dealing with someone with a brilliant mind.

Eventually they must leave England to figure out the next steps they will take in discovering their enemy, and deciding what to do when they catch up to the person.  They take on a mission for Mycroft, who works in a privileged and highly secretive position in British Intelligence, and go to Palestine to solve a case.  These events are related in more detail in a later novel in the series, O Jerusalem. This whole section is very moving, especially considering today’s events.  With the case in Palestine solved, Holmes and Mary return to England to confront their main adversary.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is an extraordinary novel, and I loved it just as much today as I did almost thirty years ago when I first read it.  I remembered who the main villain turned out to be, but that didn’t spoil it for me this time around.  On a personal note, this is the novel that made me a mystery-lover.  I had always enjoyed the PBS Mystery series on TV, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, in the 1980s, but I didn’t read many mysteries then. I read more fantasy and historical fiction.  (I am still a huge fan of historical fiction, but I don’t read as much fantasy now.) After I graduated from library school and before I started my first job, my mother, who has always been a big mystery-lover, gave me The Beekeeper’s Apprentice to read because she thought I would love it, and she was right.  I’ve been a mystery fan ever since.  The series is eighteen books long now, and still going strong.  Happy Anniversary to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice!

The Beekeeper's Apprentice is available from the Children's Literature Collection in the Hatcher Graduate Library (two copies, 1994 edition and 2007 edition).  It was not written as a children's book, but readers 12 and up would certainly enjoy it.