I stumbled over “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” and fell in love with it after only a few pages. As the audiobook was recorded in 2014 I thought I had discovered a hot new talent to share with the world. Then I noticed that I was reading the “20th Anniversary Edition” and realised that I was catching up with an author I should have been reading for years.
The upside of this is that there are twelve more books in the series already, so a feast lies ahead of me.
The beekeeper’s apprentice of the title is Mary Russell. She is as old as the century (or at least she was when the book was written in 1994) and is looking back on her long association with Sherlock Holmes whom she first bumped into on the Sussex Downs in 1915, when she was a teenage girl recovering from a recent calamity and seeking refuge in books and long walks. Sherlock Holmes, in his fifties and allegedly retired, now lives in the country, keeping bees and writing papers on the topics such as how to disguise one’s footprints.
The book spans a four-year period which lays the foundation for a long-term relationship between Russell and Holmes. During this time the two are involved in three “cases” plus a side trip to Palestine. While the cases and the means of solving them are very reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, the man himself is quite different. The Holmes Russell sees is older, more humane, and (eventually) more willing to share than his earlier self. Russell is intellect and focus, seasoned by guilt beyond her years and more than ready both to challenge and learn from Holmes. Russell and Holmes and the relationship between them are the heart of this book. The cases are there only to set that heart racing.
The pace of the book, while not as slow as the original Conan Doyle stories sometimes were, is still leisurely by modern standards. I think it is all the better for that. I liked the idea that Russell and Holmes, on a desperate search to find a missing girl, still take days to reach the scene of the crime so that they can arrive in disguise, using the right form of transport. The final case includes a side-trip to Palestine of several weeks. It is not strictly necessary to the plot and we find out very little about the assignment that Russell and Holmes have been on but their passage through the desert is used to season and strengthen their relationship in ways that seem authentic to me.
If you are already a fan of Holmes then this book revisits that universe in a way that invigorates and refreshes while still honouring and building on the original (Think what “Dark Knight Rises” did for Batman or what “Into Darkness” did for Star Trek). If you’ve never read Conan Doyle this book will still carry you along on its merits and may even tempt you to try some of the “original” material for yourself.
I suspect that this is a love/hate book. If the style of writing doesn’t grip your imagination and win your heart by the end of Book 1 of the novel, then this is not for you. If, like me, you are entranced, then another eleven or so books lie in your future.