Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Club

Our most recent read was The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King. It is the first book of her Mary Russell mystery series -- with Sherlock Holmes as a secondary character.

Regrettably, two of our members have bowed out of regular participation, but we will keep them apprised of our selections and they are welcome to join us whenever they wish. And another of our members is enjoying tropical climes for the next few months. *sigh* But we managed to have a lively discussion among those of us remaining.

I have to say, I'm not a fan of spin-off novels that give continued life to fictional characters or create adventures for now-deceased authors. So before I started The Beekeeper's Apprentice I went back to the original Holmes (I own the single volume complete collection -- doesn't everyone?) to refresh my memory of the brilliant curmudgeon. I reread A Study in Scarlet (shorter than I remembered), "A Scandal in Bohemia" (in which Holmes admires Irene Adler for her mind), "The Final Problem" (Holmes and Moriarity take a "fatal" plunge), and "His Last Bow, An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes" (from which King borrowed Practical Handbook of Bee Culture).

Ms. King coyly uses some Victorian devices throughout the book, including the editor's preface that sets up an old trunk full of Mary Russell's writings and miscellaneous objects. She follows this with an author's note purportedly written by Mary at age 90 in which she explains that her observations of Sherlock Holmes vary from those of Dr. Watson's famous writings. In the author interview included in my copy of the novel, Ms. King states she has revived Holmes as a supporting character to her protagonist, Mary Russell.

In so doing, Ms. King has an explanation of why her Holmes (as Mary Russell knows him) may not exactly match the Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle. Additionally, King's story begins in 1915, the year after "His Last Bow" in which Holmes is an undercover spy who disrupts a German spy ring on English soil. So we might believe that the Holmes of 1880s London has mellowed somewhat since retiring to the South Downs to live the life of a hermit among his bees and studies.

I have to admit I was a bit irritated with the Victorian conventions scattered throughout the book. Today's editors would say get rid of them and move on with the story. But they suit King's story, which pits a very modern Mary Russell (age 15 when the story opens) against the staunchly Victorian Holmes. World War I has forever changed the social landscape, and Mary is an embodiment of those changes.

We had to chuckle at our most recent book selections. Both feature tall, gawky, unmarried women in their late teens who pursue non-traditional lifestyles during World War I.

Melding with the Victorian contrivances was the rich vocabulary of the novel. Words of several syllables and multiple shades that aren't encountered in today's fast reads.

We particularly loved Mary's relationship with a young kidnap victim who displayed symptoms of what we now acknowledge as PTSD. Mary herself experienced a traumatic childhood event and she uses her hard-won wisdom to aid the rescued child through the difficult recovery period.

Holmes is a master of disguise and he instructs Mary in the art of deception. Through much of the book she wears boy's trousers (much more practical than the restrictive fashions of the time) and for most of their adventures she is disguised as a boy. We discussed Mary's self-loathing for her part in the untimely death of her family and her discomfort with her gangly female form. In hiding behind male clothing she was also hiding from herself.

We gave Ms. King credit for staying true to Conan Doyle's Holmes when Mary at last confesses the truth of her family's deadly accident. Holmes is bluntly honest but, like his affection for Watson, he is not put off by the flaws of his blossoming apprentice.

Which brings us to the relationship of tutor and apprentice. King does a masterly job of developing Mary's abilities as a detective as well as displaying Holmes' changing attitude toward the young woman that Mary becomes. Ms. King hints at changes to be further developed in the following books of the series. The chess games used throughout the novel illustrate the growing acuity of Mary's mind as the apprentice becomes the journeyman detective, as well as the evolution of the relationship between Holmes and Mary.

Like The Hearts of Horses, The Beekeeper's Apprentice places the reader in a period when women's roles were still restricted but on the cusp of dramatic change. Both heroines chafe against their expected social roles and we cheer them on.

Our favorite quote from the book: "Palestine, Israel, that most troubled of lands; robbed, raped, ravaged, revered for most of four millennia; beaten and colonised by Sargon's Akkadians in the third millennium B.C.E. and by Allenby's England in the Common Era's second millennium; holy to half the world, a narrow strip of marginally fertile soil whose every inch has felt the feet of conquering soldiers, a barren land whose only wealth lies in the children she had borne. Palestine." A provocative summation in a single sentence.

In a departure from fiction, our next book is Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a memoir by Rhoda Janzen.

1 comment:

gowestferalwoman said...

different perspective on a classic... I like reading those!