An Agatha Award Best Novel Nominee • Named One of the Century's Best 100 Mysteries by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association
In 1915, Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honeybees in Sussex when a young woman literally stumbles onto him on the Sussex Downs. Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, the young Mary Russell displays an intellect to impress even Sherlock Holmes. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern, twentieth-century woman proves a deft protégée and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective. They are soon called to Wales to help Scotland Yard find the kidnapped daughter of an American senator, a case of international significance with clues that dip deep into Holmes's past. Full of brilliant deduction, disguises, and danger, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first book of the Mary Russell–Sherlock Holmes mysteries, is "remarkably beguiling" (The Boston Globe).
|Series:||Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series , #1|
|Edition description:||Special edition, 20th Anniversary Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Lexile:||1010L (what's this?)|
About the Author
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The Beekeeper's Apprentice
Or, On the Segregation of the Queen
By Laurie R. King
PicadorCopyright © 1994 Laurie R. King
All rights reserved.
Two Shabby Figures
The discovery of a sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of the emotion Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the imprint of a human foot on the sandy beach of his island.
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. In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading amongst the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness), I had never before stepped on a person.
It was a cool, sunny day in early April, and the book was by Virgil. I had set out at dawn from the silent farmhouse, chosen a different direction from my usual — in this case southeasterly, towards the sea — and had spent the intervening hours wrestling with Latin verbs, climbing unconsciously over stone walls, and unthinkingly circling hedgerows, and would probably not have noticed the sea until I stepped off one of the chalk cliffs into it.
As it was, my first awareness that there was another soul in the universe was when a male throat cleared itself loudly not four feet from me. The Latin text flew into the air, followed closely by an Anglo-Saxon oath. Heart pounding, I hastily pulled together what dignity I could and glared down through my spectacles at this figure hunched up at my feet: a gaunt, greying man in his fifties wearing a cloth cap, ancient tweed greatcoat, and decent shoes, with a threadbare army rucksack on the ground beside him. A tramp perhaps, who had left the rest of his possessions stashed beneath a bush. Or an Eccentric. Certainly no shepherd.
He said nothing. Very sarcastically. I snatched up my book and brushed it off.
"What on earth are you doing?" I demanded. "Lying in wait for someone?"
He raised one eyebrow at that, smiled in a singularly condescending and irritating manner, and opened his mouth to speak in that precise drawl which is the trademark of the overly educated upper-class English gentleman. A high voice; a biting one: definitely an Eccentric.
"I should think that I can hardly be accused of 'lying' anywhere," he said, "as I am seated openly on an uncluttered hillside, minding my own business. When, that is, I am not having to fend off those who propose to crush me underfoot." He rolled the penultimate r to put me in my place.
Had he said almost anything else, or even said the same words in another manner, I should merely have made a brusque apology and a purposeful exit, and my life would have been a very different thing. However, he had, all unknowing, hit squarely on a highly sensitive spot. My reason for leaving the house at first light had been to avoid my aunt, and the reason (the most recent of many reasons) for wishing to avoid my aunt was the violent row we'd had the night before, a row sparked by the undeniable fact that my feet had outgrown their shoes, for the second time since my arrival three months before. My aunt was small, neat, shrewish, sharp-tongued, quick-witted, and proud of her petite hands and feet. She invariably made me feel clumsy, uncouth, and unreasonably touchy about my height and the corresponding size of my feet. Worse, in the ensuing argument over finances, she had won.
His innocent words and his far-from-innocent manner hit my smouldering temper like a splash of petrol. My shoulders went back, my chin up, as I stiffened for combat. I had no idea where I was or who this man was, whether I was standing on his land or he on mine, if he was a dangerous lunatic or an escaped convict or the lord of the manor, and I did not care. I was furious.
"You have not answered my question, sir," I bit off.
He ignored my fury. Worse than that, he seemed unaware of it. He looked merely bored, as if he wished I might go away.
"What am I doing here, do you mean?"
"I am watching bees," he said flatly, and turned back to his contemplation of the hillside.
Nothing in the man's manner showed a madness to correspond with his words. Nonetheless, I kept a wary eye on him as I thrust my book into my coat pocket and dropped to the ground — a safe distance away from him — and studied the movement in the flowers before me.
There were indeed bees, industriously working at stuffing pollen into those leg sacs of theirs, moving from flower to flower. I watched, and was just thinking that there was nothing particularly noteworthy about these bees when my eyes were caught by the arrival of a peculiarly marked specimen. It seemed an ordinary honeybee but had a small red spot on its back. How odd — perhaps what he had been watching? I glanced at the Eccentric, who was now staring intently off into space, and then looked more closely at the bees, interested in spite of myself. I quickly concluded that the spot was no natural phenomenon but rather paint, for there was another bee, its spot slightly lopsided, and another, and then another odd thing: a bee with a blue spot as well. As I watched, two red spots flew off in a northwesterly direction. I carefully observed the blue-and-red spot as it filled its pouches and saw it take off towards the northeast.
I thought for a minute, got up, and walked to the top of the hill, scattering ewes and lambs, and when I looked down at a village and river, I knew instantly where I was. My house was less than two miles from here. I shook my head ruefully at my inattention, thought for a moment longer about this man and his red- and blue-spotted bees, and walked back down to take my leave of him. He did not look up, so I spoke to the back of his head.
"I'd say the blue spots are a better bet, if you're trying for another hive," I told him. "The ones you've only marked with red are probably from Mr. Warner's orchard. The blue spots are farther away, but they're almost sure to be wild ones." I dug the book from my pocket, and when I looked up to wish him a good day, he was looking back at me, and the expression on his face took all words from my lips — no mean accomplishment. He was, as the writers say but people seldom actually are, openmouthed. He looked a bit like a fish, in fact, gaping at me as if I were growing another head. He slowly stood up, his mouth shutting as he rose, but still staring.
"What did you say?"
"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 I was 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."
The face that looked down at me was no longer fishlike. In fact, it resembled amazingly a captive eagle I had once seen, perched in aloof splendour looking down the ridge of his nose at this lesser creature, cold disdain staring out from his hooded grey eyes.
"My God," he said in a voice of mock wonder, "it can think."
My anger had abated somewhat while watching the bees, but at this casual insult it erupted. Why was this tall, thin, infuriating old man so set on provoking an unoffending stranger? My chin went up again, only in part because he was taller than I, and I mocked him in return.
"My God, it can recognise another human being when it's hit over the head with one." For good measure I added, "And to think that I was raised to believe that old people had decent manners."
I stood back to watch my blows strike home, and as I faced him squarely, my mind's eye finally linked him up with rumours I had heard and the reading I had done during my recent long convalescence, and I knew who he was, and I was appalled.
I had, I should mention, always assumed that a large part of Dr. Watson's adulatory stories were a product of that gentleman's inferior imagination. Certainly he always regarded the reader to be as slow as himself. Most irritating. Nonetheless, behind the stuff and nonsense of the biographer there towered a figure of pure genius, one of the great minds of his generation. A Legend.
And I was horrified: Here I was, standing before a Legend, flinging insults at him, yapping about his ankles like a small dog worrying a bear. I suppressed a cringe and braced myself for the casual swat that would send me flying.
To my amazement, however, and considerable dismay, instead of counterattacking, he just smiled condescendingly and bent down to pick up his rucksack. I heard the faint rattle of the paint bottles within. He straightened, pushed his old-fashioned cap back on his greying hair, and looked at me with tired eyes.
"Young man, I —"
"'Young man'!" That did it. Rage swept into my veins, filling me with power. Granted I was far from voluptuous, granted I was dressed in practical, that is, male, clothing — this was not to be borne. Fear aside, Legend aside, the yapping lapdog attacked with all the utter contempt only an adolescent can muster. With a surge of glee, I seized the weapon he had placed in my hands and drew back for the coup de grâce. "'Young man'?" I repeated. "It's a damned good thing that you did retire, if that's all that remains of the great detective's mind!" With that I reached for the brim of my oversized cap and my long blonde plaits slithered down over my shoulders.
A series of emotions crossed his face, rich reward for my victory. Simple surprise was followed by a rueful admission of defeat, and then, as he reviewed the entire discussion, he surprised me. His face relaxed, his thin lips twitched, his grey eyes crinkled into unexpected lines, and at last he threw back his head and gave a great shout of delighted laughter. That was the first time I heard Sherlock Holmes laugh, and although it was far from the last, it never ceased to surprise me, seeing that proud, ascetic face dissolve into helpless laughter. His amusement was always at least partially at himself, and this time was no exception. I was totally disarmed.
He wiped his eyes with the handkerchief I had seen poking from his coat pocket; a slight smear of blue paint was transferred to the bridge of his angular nose. He looked at me then, seeing me for the first time. After a minute he gestured at the flowers.
"You know something about bees, then?"
"Very little," I admitted.
"But they interest you?" he suggested.
This time both eyebrows raised.
"And, pray tell, why such a firm opinion?"
"From what I know of them they are mindless creatures, little more than a tool for putting fruit on trees. The females do all the work; the males do ... well, they do little. And the queen, the only one who might amount to something, is condemned for the sake of the hive to spend her days as an egg machine. And," I said, warming to the topic, "what happens when her equal comes along, another queen with which she might have something in common? They are both forced — for the good of the hive — to fight to the death. Bees are great workers, it is true, but does not the production of each bee's total lifetime amount to a single dessert-spoonful of honey? Each hive puts up with having hundreds of thousands of bee-hours stolen regularly, to be spread on toast and formed into candles, instead of declaring war or going on strike as any sensible, self-respecting race would do. A bit too close to the human race for my taste."
Mr. Holmes had sat down upon his heels during my tirade, watching a blue spot. When I had finished, he said nothing, but put out one long, thin finger and gently touched the fuzzy body, disturbing it not at all. There was silence for several minutes until the laden bee flew off — northeast, towards the copse two miles away, I was certain. He watched it disappear and murmured almost to himself, "Yes, they are very like Homo sapiens. Perhaps that is why they so interest me."
"I don't know how sapient you find most Homines, but I for one find the classification an optimistic misnomer." I was on familiar ground now, that of the mind and opinions, a beloved ground I had not trod for many months. That some of the opinions were those of an obnoxious teenager made them none the less comfortable or easy to defend. To my pleasure, he responded.
"Homo in general, or simply vir?" he asked, with a solemnity that made me suspect that he was laughing at me. Well, at least I had taught him to be subtle with it.
"Oh, no. I am a feminist, but no man hater. A misanthrope in general, I suppose like yourself, sir. However, unlike you, I find women to be the marginally more rational half of the race."
He laughed again, a gentler version of the earlier outburst, and I realised that I had been trying to provoke it this time.
"Young lady" — he stressed the second word with gentle irony — "you have caused me amusement twice in one day, which is more than anyone else has done in some time. I have little humour to offer in return, but if you would care to accompany me home, I could at least give you a cup of tea."
"I should be very pleased to do so, Mr. Holmes."
"Ah, you have the advantage over me. You obviously know my name, yet there is no one present of whom I might beg an introduction to yourself." The formality of his speech was faintly ludicrous considering that we were two shabby figures facing each other on an otherwise deserted hillside.
"My name is Mary Russell." I held out my hand, which he took in his thin, dry one. We shook as if cementing a peace pact, which I suppose we were.
"Mary," he said, tasting it. He pronounced it in the Irish manner, his mouth caressing the long first syllable. "A suitably orthodox name for such a passive individual as yourself."
"I believe I was named after the Magdalene, rather than the Virgin."
"Ah, that explains it then. Shall we go, Miss Russell? My housekeeper ought to have something to put in front of us."
It was a lovely walk, that, nearly four miles over the downs. We thumbed over a variety of topics strung lightly on the common thread of apiculture. He gestured wildly atop a knoll when comparing the management of hives with Machiavellian theories of government, and cows ran snorting away. He paused in the middle of a stream to illustrate his theory juxtaposing the swarming of hives and the economic roots of war, using examples of the German invasion of France and the visceral patriotism of the English. Our boots squelched for the next mile. He reached the heights of his peroration at the top of a hill and launched himself down the other side at such a speed that he resembled some great flapping thing about to take off.
He stopped to look around for me, took in my stiffening gait and my inability to keep up with him, both literally and metaphorically, and shifted into a less manic mode. He did seem to have a good practical basis for his flights of fancy and, it turned out, had even written a book on the apiary arts entitled A Practical Handbook of Bee Culture. It had been well received, he said with pride (this from a man who, I remembered, had respectfully declined a knighthood from the late queen), particularly his experimental but highly successful placement within the hive of what he called the Royal Quarters, which had given the book its provocative subtitle: With Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen.
We walked, he talked, and under the sun and his soothing if occasionally incomprehensible monologue, I began to feel something hard and tight within me relax slightly, and an urge I had thought killed began to make the first tentative stirrings towards life. When we arrived at his cottage, we had known each other forever.
Other more immediate stirrings had begun to assert themselves as well, with increasing insistence. I had taught myself in recent months to ignore hunger, but a healthy young person after a long day in the open air with only a sandwich since morning is likely to find it difficult to concentrate on anything other than the thought of food. I prayed that the cup of tea would be a substantial one, and was considering the problem of how to suggest such a thing, should it not be immediately offered, when we reached his house and the housekeeper herself appeared at the door, and for a moment I forgot my preoccupation. It was none other than the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson, whom I had long considered the most underrated figure in all of Dr. Watson's stories. Yet another example of the man's obtuseness, this inability to know a gem unless it be set in gaudy gold.
Excerpted from The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 1994 Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Book One: Apprenticeship,
1. Two Shabby Figures,
2. The Sorcerer's Apprentice,
3. Mistress of the Hounds,
4. A Case of My Own,
Book Two: Internship,
5. The Vagrant Gipsy Life,
6. A Child Gone from Her Bed,
7. Words with Miss Simpson,
Book Three: Partnership,
8. We Have a Case,
9. The Game, Afoot,
10. The Problem of the Empty House,
11. Another Problem: The Mutilated Four-Wheeler,
Excursus: A Gathering of Strength,
13. Umbilicus Mundi,
Book Four: Mastery,
14. The Act Begins,
15. Separation Trial,
16. The Daughter of the Voice,
17. Forces Joined,
18. Battle Royal,
Postlude: Putting off the Armour,
19. Return Home,
By Laurie R. King,
About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about The Beekeeper's Apprentice are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Beekeeper's Apprentice.
1. In an Editor's Preface, King playfully discloses the "true" origin of the story at hand: that what follows will be the actual memoirs of Mary Russell, which were mysteriously sent to her out of the blue, along with a trunk full of odds and ends. Why does King begin with this anecdote, essentially including herself in the story? Does it bring the world of the novel closer to our own? Have you read any other books (Lolita, for example) which begin with a false-preface, and what effect does this device have on the rest of the novel? Were you fooled?
2. It is 1915, the Great War is raging through Europe and the men of England are in the trenches. How does this particular period in history allow a character like Mary Russell to take the stage in areas of post-Victorian society usually reserved for men? In what significant ways does she seize these opportunities? Would she have thrived if born into a different, more oppressive social climate, say, one hundred years earlier?
3. How would you characterize Mary Russell based on her first opinion of bees? Does her disdain for their mindless busy-work and adherence to hive social structure reflect a particular attitude toward the social landscape of England at the time? Do you agree with Mary?
4. Holmes uses the game of chess to sharpen Mary Russell's strategic thinking and intuition. How does chess - and, in particular, the Queen - serve as a metaphor throughout the story? In what ways does King herself use the game to comment upon the master- apprentice relationship?
5. Russell and Holmes don disguises throughout The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and their work sometimes requires them to cross dress. Discuss each point in the novel where either Russell or Holmes takes cover in the opposite sex; what special access does this method of disguise give them to the other characters? Is gender reversal necessary in order to win the confidence of certain people? How does Mary Russell's world change when she dresses as a man?
6. Watson is eternally known as the great detective's sidekick. Who, in your opinion, is a more effective foil for Holmes, Watson or Russell? What different aspects of Holmes's personality emerge in the presence of each? What would happen if Holmes were paired with a different partner, one more timid or less tenacious?
7. At Oxford, Mary Russell concludes that theology and detective work are one and the same. In your opinion, how are the two subjects related?
8. The art of deduction is constantly at play in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Even when Mary notices that Watson has shaven off his mustache, she cares to look closer at the skin and imagine that it was done "very recently". Is Laurie King training the reader's perceptions to be more acute throughout the novel? Does every detail of our lives hold a mystery and a story?
9. What are some crucial differences between the training Patricia Donleavy received from Moriarty and the training Mary Russell received from Holmes? What mental and emotional strengths do both women have in common, and what separates them? Holmes comments: "A quick mind is worthless unless you can control the emotions with it as well." How does this maxim apply?
10. At what point in the novel did you suspect that Russell's adversary was a woman? When you read a mystery, what assumptions do you typically make about the gender of the villain? In what ways does King toy with the reader's assumptions about gender throughout the novel?