California Literary Review

The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King

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August 20th, 2009 at 10:07 am

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The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King
The Language of Bees
by Laurie R. King
Bantam, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

The Continuing Adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

As I have had occasion to note in the past, Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of an ongoing literary and video industry ever since his debut in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887.

Dozens of stories and novels that feature the private consulting detective and his faithful reporter are published every year. An estimated 70 different actors have played Holmes in more then 200 films. Attention will undoubtedly grow after the projected Christmas 2009 release of “Sherlock Holmes,” the Guy Ritchie-directed movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson, and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. (Trailers that intimate a Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer-style explosion fest with occasional lingerie and osculation have many of the faithful gnashing their teeth.)

Somewhere, there may be a Holmes fan or institution that has attempted to collect every fiction ever written about him (never mind all the scholarly works and journals). I shudder to think how huge a facility that would require.

One of the most successful Holmes revivals has been Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series. The heroine was introduced in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) as the 15-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother from Britain and an American millionaire father. She had lived in Boston and San Francisco, but came to Sussex Downs to stay with an aunt after being injured and orphaned in a car crash in California the year before.

Mary meets the retired Holmes (he would have been 54 at the time). He is impressed with her intellect and powers of deduction, and he begins to train her in his methods. Six years (and another book) later, they are husband and wife as well as partners in detection. Mary has also been accepted to Oxford and occasionally treks up there to study chemistry and theology. She was raised by her mother in the Jewish tradition and considers herself a Jew.

Following A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995), A Letter of Mary (1997), The Moor (1998), O Jerusalem (1999), Justice Hall (2002), The Game (2004), and Locked Rooms (2005), The Language of Bees is the ninth volume in the series. The books do not unfold the pair’s adventures in precise chronological order: a five-year gap separates the debut from Monstrous Regiment, and O Jerusalem doubles back to the period between the first two books.

Most of the narratives are first-person accounts by Mary, so readers get to know her very well. She is a strong, resourceful, intelligent, and fascinating character in her own right. Sometimes, she can seem a little too perfect: she speaks ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (from her theology studies), French and German, and manages to pick up a good speaking ability in Arabic and Hindi during their adventures overseas. Her throwing arm has deadly accuracy, and on occasion she uses it to great effect with knives, darts, or just rocks. She is a great picker of locks.

Nevertheless, although King does a fine job of recreating the man we all think we know, her own heroine is at least the equal of Holmes in complexity and attractiveness. One hardly minds on those occasions when he disappears from view, as he does for much of The Game and Locked Rooms, the latter of which is primarily a return to Mary’s childhood in California and the death of her parents (which in turn, perhaps not surprisingly, turns out to have been a planned murder and not an accident).

Increasingly, King has had some fun bringing “guest stars” into the Holmes/Russell series, some fictional, some real. Watson has dropped by briefly, as has Lestrade. Lord Peter Wimsey makes a cameo appearance in A Letter of Mary.

In The Moor (which gets a little tedious for all the location research it insists on relaying, to the detriment of forward plot movement), one meets the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, a novelist and scholar who also composed hymns such as “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” (There’s also a little inside joke here: his grandson, William S. Baring-Gould, was an outstanding Holmes scholar who published the first Annotated Sherlock Holmes in 1967.)

In The Game, King briefly brings Kipling’s Kim onstage; and in Locked Rooms, a private dick named Dashiell Hammett turns up and does some legwork on Holmes’s behalf after having first tailed the visiting Brit for another client and gotten caught at it by Sherlock.

In addition, King slipped a report of a separate mystery by Holmes himself into The Art of Detection (2006), the fifth novel in her separate series about Kate Martinelli, a lesbian police detective in contemporary San Francisco. The Holmes adventure occurred at roughly the same time as the events in Locked Rooms, set in 1924, when Holmes and Russell happened to be in San Francisco on their way back from the adventure in India related in The Game. Of course, Martinelli and the modern-day Holmes fans in The Art of Detection assume the manuscript was (or wasn’t) written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

King obviously does a lot of homework. There are plenty of timely references, from Leopold and Loeb to “Kitten on the Keys” (a classic ragtime tune by Zez Confrey that my father used to play when I was a child). Since these narratives purport to have been written by Russell, period British spellings abound (“kerb,” “dèbris,” “defence”; and in the library copy of The Game I read, I was amused to see an unenlightened American reader had crossed out the correct British “e” in “judgement” on page 100), as do idioms (“hotchpotch”). Russell/King is not above employing an occasional pun: “watched plots never come to a boil….”

Occasionally she hits a sour note. A reference to Philo Vance in Locked Rooms may be a misstep: as noted before, the Holmes/Russell mystery is set in 1924, but the first S.S. Van Dine crime novel starring the foppish New York intellectual Vance did not come out until 1926. Also in Locked Rooms, an August 22, 1914 letter by Mary’s father, Charles David Russell, mentions the “Aegean stables” – no doubt referring to one of Hercules’ Twelve Labors. The general mythical region is close, but the stables belonged to King Augeas, so they are known as the Augean Stables. Mary’s father would have known better.

Some readers may find King occasionally yields to a tendency to dig an elbow in one’s ribs, such as here:

Holmes laughed aloud. “One of the inadvertent side-effects of Watson’s florid writing style coupled with Conan Doyle’s name is that Sherlock Holmes tends to be either wildly overestimated, or the other extreme, dismissed entirely as something of a joke. It used to infuriate me—Doyle’s a dangerously gullible lunatic—but apart from the blow to my ego, it’s actually remarkably convenient.”

“You don’t say,” Hammett responded, clearly taken aback at the idea of the flesh-and-blood man seated in his living-room being considered a piece of fiction. And no doubt wondering how he would feel, were someone to do the same to him.

That is also from Locked Rooms, a book I otherwise enjoyed very much, I hasten to add.

Some fans of the Doyle originals have rejected this series based on the couple’s 39-year age difference, let alone the idea that Holmes would ever marry at all. But given the premise, King’s Holmes/Russell books are sharply written and have been largely well received by readers and reviewers. Her mysteries are not fiendishly plotted (like, say, those by Iain Pears), but her characters are rich and compelling.

In The Language of Bees, King follows up on some hints that were dropped way back in the second book: that Holmes had had further relations with “The Woman,” Irene Adler (who featured in the first Holmes short story Doyle published, “A Scandal in Bohemia”), and had fathered a son.

Damian Adler evidently was born in about 1895, toward the end of Holmes’s three-year, post-Reichenbach Falls sojourn ’round the world. He had learned that Adler’s husband—the Godfrey Norton she married in “Scandal,” with Holmes as disguised (but not, it turns out, unknown to Adler) witness—had been killed, and she had suffered injuries that ended her stage career. Adler returned to America, however, without informing Holmes that she was carrying his child.

Holmes only learned of Damian’s existence when the young man was charged with murder in France in 1919. Brother Mycroft had known about Damian because he was contacted by the mother back in 1894, in case something should happen to the boy, but Adler swore Mycroft to secrecy at least until her death. By 1919, Damian was 24 and a painter, but also a troubled and drug-addicted veteran of World War I. (Another elbow in the ribs from King via Mary: “He was lost as so many of his—my—generation were.”) The homicide charge didn’t stick, and Damian disappeared again.

Now it is 1924, and he has turned up on Holmes’s doorstep. Damian spent some time in Shanghai, where he married a former prostitute named Yolanda; they had a daughter Estelle, they have gotten involved with a woo-woo spiritual cult called The Children of Lights, and now Yolanda and Estelle have disappeared. Bodies begin to pile up.

There’s a tiny subplot about a hive on Holmes’s farm that has been repetitively swarming. Evidently King meant to suggest an analogy between the problem with the bees and the Bohemian community where The Children of Light take root, but it is neither belabored nor satisfyingly sustained.

Language is nonetheless a solid addition to the Holmes/Russell series. Mycroft, who has appeared briefly in the past, takes a more active role in this book. The historic figures Augustus John and Aleister Crowley don’t actually have walk-ons, but they are mentioned several times just offstage. Mary takes a long and rather frightening trip to the Orkneys in an early airplane.

I recently reread the entire Doyle oeuvre of Holmes stories (the new Leslie Klinger edition, of course; Klinger gets a courtesy mention in the plot of The Art of Detection, by the way), and some of them are incredibly bad. One can hardly blame the author; he had bowed to fan pressure to revive a hero in whom he had lost much of the creator’s interest. Continuing to churn out stories was a little akin to working for a bloodless corporation to whom you’ve surrendered your soul. He shouldn’t have done it.

But he had already created an immortal character. Holmes is too big and too great to be hurt by anything or anyone now: Ritchie’s movie won’t do it (though I trust Downey to do an interesting job with the character), and despite the squawks of purists, I wouldn’t say the great detective has suffered any harm at the hands of Laurie R. King. I have looked forward to her past books in the series and will continue to do so.

The next one, scheduled for publication next year, is titled The Green Man.

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