Reading Journal: "The God of the Hive"
Laurie R. King, The God of the Hive. Bantam 2010. $25. I read the novel in Advance Uncorrected Proofs, through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994), Laurie R. King introduces readers to Mary Russell, a fifteen year old girl walking the Sussex downs with her nose in a text of Vergil. On her walk, she stumbles upon "a gaunt, graying man in his fifties" who mistakes her for a boy. The man is Sherlock Holmes, who has retired from detection to become a beekeeper. Inevitably, Russell and Holmes are drawn into an adventure together, and a new detective partnership—and a new detective series—is born. In the course of ten books, Russell and Holmes solve crimes, escape death, engage in espionage, revisit the scenes of canonical Holmes adventures (such as Dartmoor), develop a close intellectual affinity, and get married.
That marriage, between partners separated by nearly forty years, is one of the improbable elements in the Russell-Holmes series that Laurie R. King somehow manages to make work. The novels are for the most part not standard cosy murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, with a body and a slow process of working out the problem. They are more thrillers, or "novels of suspense," than mysteries, and Russell and Holmes occasionally do more spying than detecting—thanks to King's transformation of Holmes's older brother Mycroft into the prototype of the British spymaster. But King is also playfully aware of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle standing in the background, and for Holmes enthusiasts there are plentiful references to the detective's earlier career.
In fact, The God of the Hive opens with Russell fleeing from danger with Estelle Adler, the daughter of Damian Adler, who is Holmes's son by his former nemesis, Irene Adler (introduced in the Conan Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia"). My progress through the opening chapters of the story was slowed by the fact that The God of the Hive is, in fact, a sequel, picking up the action where it was left at the end of the previous Russell and Holmes novel, The Language of Bees. It would be best to read the two books in order, but King does a good job of bringing the lapsed reader like me up to speed. (I had only read the first six of the nine previous novels in the series.)
Most of the novel follows the attempts of Holmes and Russell to keep Damian and Estelle safe from a madman out for their blood. Along the way, a dangerous plot involving Mycroft Holmes develops. For most of the novel, Russell and Holmes are forced to separate: Holmes is on the run with Damian and a feisty, red-haired Scottish doctor; Russell is on the run with Estelle, an American pilot, and a mysterious Lake District woodsman. In King's skilled hands, all the moving parts fit together to create a highly satisfying and suspenseful entertainment.
The novel is set in 1924, soon after the election of Britain's first Labour government. In the background of the novel is a sense of political and social change. Holmes, who was at home in the London of the 1890s, has begun to find the City in many ways unrecognizable. He and Mycroft are beginning to feel their age as a new generation comes to power. King is fascinated with the contrast between Britain's rural and pagan traditions and its busy urban modernity. In the end, it's a case of Puck versus the bureaucrat.
Seasoned readers of the Russell-Holmes series know that Mary Russell speaks several languages, including Hebrew, and has an uncannily accurate throwing arm that allows her to bean six villains in the head with heavy stones in the middle of a pitch-black night. Russell herself is the most improbable of the improbable elements in the novels. But King makes her work, and makes her hold together these wild tales of mystery and suspense—and even has a little fun at the expense of her improbable creation. In one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the novel, Holmes is talking to the Scottish doctor, and mentions his wife.
"She read theology at Oxford," he explains.
"Of course she did," the doctor replies.
Russell, like much of King's marvelous series, is too good to be true. Fortunately, she's fictional, and keeps coming back for more skillfully written and highly entertaining adventures.