The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, With Some Notes Upon the Segregation of the Queen
One part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz is a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time. Week two: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes novel, published 1994; one of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Associations’ 100 Best Novels of the Century.
If A Grave Talent had as its underlying theme what Rembrandt would look like as a woman, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice addresses the question, What would the brilliant, cold, and egocentric mind of Sherlock Holmes look like set in a young woman? The original title was, The Segregation of the Queen, taken from the subtitle of Sherlock Holmes’ book about beekeeping. In 1915, a young orphan named Mary Russell befriends and becomes the apprentice of a retired consulting detective living on England’s South Downs:
I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.
After a long life in private practice, Holmes is confronted by a young person with the potential to become his student. Not at all certain about it, nonetheless he harnesses her voracious mind to the discipline of his trade, teaches her all he knows, and watches with bemusement—and some alarm—as she grows beyond the status of student into a full-fledged partner, just in time for a deadly foe to come into view.
The book plays on a mixed analogy of “queen” images: In the game of chess she and Holmes are playing, Russell the pawn is made into a queen. And to draw on the techniques of beekeeping, Holmes must then segregate her in order to carry out the investigation.
One of the drawbacks of the Conan Doyle stories is a thing that also make them so intriguing: The reader, seeing through the eyes of Dr Watson, never really follows the lightning-fast reasoning process of the great detective. However, in Russell, the reader is given a window into a mind both remarkably similar yet revealingly different: the Victorian detective reborn as a young, Twentieth century, female and feminist individual.
And when they meet, sparks inevitably fly.