December 2002

Melinda Hill

mystery strumpet

Mary Russell tackles Sherlock Holmes with grace

Writing new stories with a character someone else has created is nothing new to the comic book world; in fact, it's standard practice. Taking "literary" characters someone else has created is a bit riskier and rather unexpected. It's been done on screen (i.e. the James Bond cannon) with mixed success, and occasionally with books, with similar results. Frankly, some characters should be left alone due to a general lack of depth (anything involving an Olsen twin), or should have been left alone a long time ago because every last breath has already been squeezed out of them (insert V.C. Andrews books here). Some characters, however, could use another visit. There is still public demand and love for the character. There are still questions to be answered about the essential nature of the character. To revisit someone else's literary creation, there needs to be somewhere to take the character, to allow them to breathe, grow, and change. It also simplifies things immensely if the original author is dead and the works are public domain. When these conditions are met, then revisiting an established character, as long as care is taken not to tread all over the established canon, is an excellent idea.

Sherlock Holmes is a cultural icon, without doubt. His logical deduction skills, his cool demeanor, and his cocaine/morphine addiction have been portrayed on screens large and small. Holmes has had a life beyond Arthur Conan Doyle as well. Several writers have taken a shot at giving him new life, from focusing on his brother Mycroft to placing his further adventures in the United States. The most fascinating of these new incarnations of Homes is Laurie King's Mary Russell series.

The first book of the Mary Russell series is The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Told from Mary's perspective, it opens with Russell, as Holmes calls her, wandering the Sussex Downs near her home, braids tucked into her hat and her nose in a book. She nearly trips over the legendary detective, but doesn't immediately recognize him. Holmes has taken up residence in the country since his retirement. She asks what he's doing, and he tells her he's watching bees. She tells him that the ones he's marked with blue are a better bet.

"What did you say?" he replies.

"I beg your pardon, are you hard of hearing?" I raised my voice somewhat and spoke slowly. "I said, if you want a new hive you'll have to follow the blue spots, because the reds are sure to be Tom Warner's."

"I am not hard of hearing, although I am short of credulity. How do you come to know of my interests?"

"I should have thought it obvious," I said impatiently, though even at that age aware that such things were not obvious to the majority of people. "I see paint on your pocket-handkerchief, and traces on your fingers where you wiped it away. The only reason to mark bees that I can think of is to enable one to follow them to their hive. You are either interested in gathering honey or in the bees themselves, and it is not the time of year to harvest honey. Three months ago we had an unusual cold spell that killed many hives. Therefore I assume that you are tracking these in order to replenish your own stock."

With that, Holmes sees something he's never seen before: that potential for an intellect to rival his own, in a fifteen-year-old girl, no less. Russell, orphaned from a car accident, is living a lonely existence with an aunt who is jealous of Russell's money, a trust from her parents. Holmes is equally lonely; in his fifties, retired, restless, and a beekeeper. The book takes place at the turn of the century. Evidently Conan Doyle advanced the age of Holmes in his stories to make him seem more believable. So you have here Homes: cool, tactless, frank Victorian gentleman and Russell: a product of the twentieth century, equally frank and equally intelligent. They challenge and sharpen each other, and frequently amuse and irritate each other as well. Understandably, Russell's age is quickly advanced to 18 and her Oxford education, and that's when things really begin for her: she cracks her first case, soon establishing herself as an equal, and not just an apprentice, to Holmes.

The Mary Russell series follows Holmes and Russell through the next several years, the most recent one taking place around World War II. Russell's cases are varied, and call on her various passions. Her interest in theology, one of her areas of study at Oxford, is central in several books. In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second Mary Russell book, Russell investigates a charismatic sect with a feminist slant on Christianity, "The New Temple of God," led by Margery Childe. The next, A Letter of Mary, explores the possibilities of a letter written by Mary Magdalene. O Jerusalem gives Russell the opportunity to visit the home of her heart and heritage, Palestine. Theology adds a richness and element of humanity that was missing from the Holmes cannon. It's a nice counterbalance to Holmes' wry disinterest in matters of the heart. Russell's passion for theology is a reflection of author King's own interest; she has a Master's degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Russell isn't ruled simply by her heart, however, and that's part of what makes her such an appealing heroine. She's no damsel in distress, and she doesn't exist simply to show off how intelligent Holmes is, which seems to be Watson's lot, at least, according to Conan Doyle. King has a much kinder portrayal of Watson; a kind-hearted, albeit extraordinarily gullible, man. Russell's appeal is in her strength, her rashness, and her intelligence. If anything, Holmes serves as a foil for her. He brings out her strengths (keen intelligence and wit, passion and compassion) and her weaknesses (her impatience, loneliness, and pain from her parent's death). He introduces her to a world and a profession that makes sense. Detective work is the only possibility for Russell; nothing else would satisfy her need to puzzle out and make sense of the world around her.

Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series is extraordinary. It breathes life into a rather dusty cultural icon. It introduces a heroine who is his equal in every way. She's capable and flawed, fascinating and provocative. She's a protagonist well worth your time. I'd suggest starting with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, a good introductory novel that sets the stage for the rest of the series, but gets a bit overly long at times with no over-arching mystery, just several shorter cases that prove Russell's growing detective skills. All the rest of the books in the series are quite good, but the best is O Jerusalem. Following Russell through post-World War I Palestine as she explores her faith, her heritage, Middle Eastern culture, and her relationship with Holmes is a compelling, suspenseful read. The Mary Russell books are great mysteries, to be sure, but the appeal goes far beyond that. It's the opportunity to see the turn of the century, with all its political and social upheavals, through the eyes of two great detectives - Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Mary Russell

A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Mary Russell

A Letter of Mary by Mary Russell

O Jerusalem by Mary Russell