CBR Bingo square: Minds: Sherlock Holmes and his wife Mary Russell are solving the mystery of Sherlock’s missing daughter-in-law and granddaughter; minds are vulnerable to influence by the predatory; Damian Adler is a surrealist artist who rejects reason in his paintings.
I was given The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994), the first in Laurie R. King’s ‘Russell and Holmes’ (yes, that Holmes) series for my birthday last year, and read it in the weeks following my surgery in May. It was a hot and arid few weeks, the British coast in June, and the book was a breath of fresh air; its cool (as in slightly frosty, calculating, distant) characters, its descriptions of the sea air over the Sussex Downs, the intellectual concerns of both the mystery and Mary Russell’s theological and mathematical studies at Oxford–all seemed to complement the breeze by the stream at the tennis courts where I sat on a bench under the pines and watched the games and forgot my new self in King’s recreation of 1920s England.
In The Language of Bees, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are married; they met when she was 15 in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, during the First World War, bonded over bee-keeping and puzzle solving, and continued their friendship during Mary’s studies at Oxford and throughout their first shared mystery. I liked their friendship. It was odd and prickly and quirky; a relationship with decades of age gap without a hint of patronising on either side. I’m not sure I like their marriage–and indeed, in The Language of Bees they spend little time together, splitting up to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Sherlock’s daughter-in-law Yolanda, the Chinese wife of his son Damian Adler (fathered by Sherlock sometime during his disappearance following his fall in Reichenbach), and granddaughter Estelle. Damian is ambivalent at best towards the father he has never known, but whose help he desperately needs; Yolanda was involved in a number of cults and religious practices, one of which, the Children of Lights, seems particularly sinister, devised by a man who sees himself as a god. Resolving the mystery become particularly urgent when mutilated bodies start showing up at sites of ancient druidic and Celtic ritual–first sheep, then humans.
The challenging of cults and mystical rhetoric and fraudulent occult practices that prey on the vulnerable is a recurring theme in the ‘Russell and Holmes’ series, figuring also in A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in the series (these incidentally also showed up in the work of a number of interwar English detective fiction writers, we find Ouija boards in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930), and Agatha Christie had seances in Dumb Witness (1937) and pagan sacrifice re-enactments in Murder is Easy (1939), while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was famously interested in spiritualism, not to mention modernist interest in ancient rites and cults–so this kind of thing was a thing) and it’s interesting enough, pitting intellect and critical thinking and Mary Russell’s years of theological research against essentially disinformation.
‘A sacrificial knife,’ he said.
One who did not know Mycroft Holmes would have heard the phrase as a simple intellectual conclusion. I could hear not only the distaste but the pain underlying that: He too had Yolanda Adler before his eyes.
‘He doesn’t say so in so many words,’ I told him. ‘And when he mentions primitives cutting out and eating the hearts of their enemies it sounds as if he took that as metaphorical, not literal. Everything in Testimony is couched in these pseudo-mythic terms; the author is deliberately crafting a holy scripture.
‘Megalomaniacs I have known,’ he mused. ‘I believe you are familiar with Aleister Crowley?’
The meshing of Sherlockian canon with new elements and characters like Damian generally works pretty well, as does the period detail and language. It always surprises me when I remember that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived until 1930–I associate him and Sherlock so vividly with the gaslit Victorian era, so seeing a version of Sherlock function in the age of aeroplanes is intriguing. The Language of Bees is the 9th in the series, and there are 7 I haven’t read between this and the first–but while it’s serviceable and interesting as a historical novel, it somehow lacks the freshness of the first, and crispness and elegance of a good mystery.
It’s summer again, and hot again, and time is moving forward again. The Language of Bees feels more like a wander down a city street than a breeze under the pines. The next one is The God of the Hive (2010), and I will most likely read it soon.