As someone who owns the two-volume “Annotated Sherlock Holmes” I approached this book with some suspicion. It was clear from the title and cover that this book either involved or paid tribute to Sherlock Holmes. After all, in “His Last Bow” Watson indicates that Holmes retired to Sussex Downs and has taken up beekeeping. My suspicions were unwarranted and this turned out to be a really delightful book.
And, of course, I’m quite a latecomer to what has become a series of Mary Russell books, an industry that has spawned quite a few novels and short story collections. This book from 1994 gave birth to them. Where was I? Hell if I know but about this time I was still raising teenage girls and doing horrible work as a state employee. Nothing interferes with reading like having to work for a living.
The basic story begins with Mary Russell, a young woman being raised by an aunt after the death of her parents, walking and reading through the hills of Sussex near her home. There she literally trips over an older man while he is huddling over bees dabbing them with various colors to try to determine which hive they’re from. We learn quickly that this is Sherlock Holmes, now nominally retired from detecting and raising bees. He has relocated to Sussex and has brought along Mrs. Hudson as his companion/housekeeper. Mary Russell charms and impresses him, which even Holmes admits is rare, and he gradually begins to feed her (her aunt punishes by withholding food) and train her in the work of detection.
King has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of Holmes and in creating a character worthy of being part of his legend. Mary is bright, insightful, intellectual, and tough. The conversations between Russell and Holmes are wonderful.
The writing itself is a lot like Watson//Conan-Doyle’s, and this inaugural book is written more like a series of short stories and novellas drawn into a single narrative. Most think of Sherlock Holmes in terms of the traditional whodunit format but many of the Holmes stories were “adventures” in which there was minimal mystery but lots of strategy and action. But there are mysteries, including their initial work together involving a local woman who consults Holmes as to why her husband only falls deathly ill when the weather is clear.
The stories are set beyond Edwardian London and into the countryside in a nation on the brink of entering World War I.
Along with the books I was also a great fan of the BBC series with the late Jeremy Brett. I could picture Brett as this Holmes, not needing to adjust at all to a new author. We even get to spend more time with Mycroft, Watson, and at least a hint of Moriarty. I was totally charmed and look forward to catching up on more Russell books this year.