Blue skies, honeybees buzzing and a 15-year-old girl walking with her nose in a book—it reads like a recipe for monotony. But make the teen so engrossed in the tome that she nearly steps on Sherlock Holmes, and you’ve catalyzed a tale that will span two decades of bestselling novels.
“I was looking to write a coming of age story of a young woman with an extraordinary mind,” Laurie R. King says from her home in California. The author is referring to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first novel in her Mary Russell mystery series. It opens with a feisty and newly orphaned Russell tripping over the infamous Holmes on the Sussex Downs. Verbal sparring ensues (during which an offended Russell says it was a “damned good thing” Holmes retired years before), at which point both Holmes and the reader discover this arrogant teen can match wits with the aged detective.
The characters’ relationship has since spanned continents and cultures, taking the duo from the moors of the Scotland to the streets of Morocco. Today marks the release of Dreaming Spies, the 13th novel in the series that began in 1994. In Dreaming Spies, we find Russell and Holmes on a boat bound from India to Japan, about 10 years after their meet-cute on the Downs.
Oh, and they’re married. (Before you cry SPOILER, their union is foreshadowed in Russell’s “Letter to the Reader” when she uses the initials “M.R.H.” within the first few pages of Beekeeper.)
“As I was writing Beekeeper,” King says in an autobiographical article published in Contemporary Author, Volume 207, “it became increasingly clear that the relationship between my two detectives was not going to be that of mere intellectual and professional partners, but rather a partnership in every aspect of their lives.”
This premise of a married Holmes initially raised an outcry from some Sherlockian fans. “It never occurred to me that anyone would be taken aback by the idea of Holmes with an apprentice, and then partner, that was 30-odd years younger than he,” Laurie says. “Because I always looked at the books as Mary Russell books rather than Sherlock Holmes books, it enabled me to use him as a character in a way I may have not felt free to do if they had been Sherlock Holmes pastiches.”
King took the liberty of making Holmes’, for example, completely abhor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original creator of the character. In King’s series, the famous Dr. John Watson shares tales of their exploits with Doyle, who then publishes them—to Holmes’ consistent chagrin.
“Conan Doyle was such a fascinating man,” Laurie says. “On the one hand, he was very down to earth—British, a sportsman. He looked like somebody who didn’t have a whole lot of imagination. On the other hand, he turns his grief over losing his son into an interest in spiritualism. The man believes in ectoplasm and is firmly convinced that his friend Houdini dematerializes to get out of the chains. It drove Houdini nuts. That would make a rationalist like Holmes nuts, just nuts.”
King even includes Doyle’s real-life phase of believing in fairies. When Holmes discovers that Doyle has published papers arguing for the existence of the magical creatures, he becomes practically apoplectic, much to Russell’s amusement.
Yet as ridiculous as Doyle could be, King respects him as an author. But she’s not afraid to claim Holmes through her series.
“Doyle finishes with Holmes at the eve of the Great War in 1914,” King explains. “After that, as my readers know well, Holmes is mine.”
Russell herself addresses the differences between the Holmes of this series and Doyle’s in Beekeeper: “Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over in me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way…. So, yes, I freely admit that my Holmes is not the Holmes of Watson.”
While Holmes possesses a clear origin, Russell’s transformation from a character in King’s mind to a celebrated protagonist in a series that has sold three million copies took years. In fact, King never intended to write fiction.
“I think if I had ever met an author [growing up], it might have dawned on me earlier that all the books on the shelves in the library weren’t there by God’s hand,” King says, laughing, “that actual human beings had something to do with putting words on the page.”
The author studied theology in college—a field both her and Russell share—completing a bachelor’s in comparative religion and a master’s in the Old Testament. “I figured I’d teach,” King says, “but when you’re in a degree that has no particular point to it, you think you’re going to be teaching other people that won’t be able to get jobs in your subject.”
She worked a string of “weird jobs,” managing a couple of coffee houses and running a small farm with her husband and two children. “I spent a lot of time doing that hippie stuff—filling the pantry with canned goods,” King says, then laughs. “It was really depressing in the 1989 quake, because my entire summer’s worth of work ended up on the floor with pieces of glass.”
King started writing Beekeeper the first week her second child went off to preschool. “I had made the first step with another novel a few years earlier when I finished my M.A.,” King says, “but I wrote about half of it before I ran out of time and ideas. I couldn’t figure out how to end the book, so I put it to the side and life got busy. Three years later, I started writing Mary Russell.”
After writing what would become books one and three of the series, King received a string of rejections from publishers. So she shifted to another series, this one taking place in her end of the century.
“I had an idea for another story that involved a woman artist,” King says, “and I thought, ‘There’s enough quirky stuff going on with the Russell and Holmes stories that entering a female Rembrandt into the mix would be too much—certainly for the readers, and definitely for the writer.’”
The “female Rembrandt” became the chief murder suspect in a novel featuring a homicide inspector named Kate Martinelli. St. Martin’s Press published the book, titled A Grave Talent, in 1993, and King won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
“The following year, [St. Martin’s Press] wanted another book,” she says. “The mystery world works on a regular appearance of names.” King’s editor asked the author what else she was working on, and King gave her both Mary Russell manuscripts to read. Her editor loved them, and Beekeeper hit shelves in 1994.
“By the time [my children] were in school full time, I would normally have thought of getting an actual job,” King says. “But I was beginning to sell. So my hobby—everyone thought of it as ‘Laurie’s hobby’—was actually earning some income, which justified keeping on with it.”
King alternately published books in both the Russell and Martinelli series, fascinating reviewers with her different writing styles. While the Martinelli books are third-person police procedurals written in American English, the Russell novels are first-person mysteries written in formal British English. King regularly includes events and characters of historical significance in the Russell novels as well, landing the series in the further specialized category of historical mysteries.
“I love to have historical novels that I can play with both entertainment and the kinds of issues that reverberate to us in the present day,” King says.
Dreaming Spies, for example, finds Russell and Holmes traveling through Japan in the mid-1920s, a time when the emperor’s power was waning while the country continued growing as a great power following its alliance with World War I’s Triple Entente.
Kings attention to historical detail has left some readers puzzled as to where the facts end and the fiction begins. Their confusion is fueled by the “Editor’s Preface” at the beginning of Beekeeper, in which King states that she did not write the Russell stories. Rather, she mysteriously received a “much-abused, old-fashioned metal traveling trunk” in the mail one day, containing completed manuscripts for what we now know as the Russell novels.
“When you’re writing in the first person, it’s a natural step to say these are real books,” King says. “Particularly when you are in the realm of Sherlock Holmes. The whole game of Holmes is: Yes, he did exist. Yes, he and Watson lived in a Baker Street apartment that they rented from Mrs. Hudson. Yes, he’s probably still alive. His obituary has never appeared in The Times, which it certainly would have.”
King’s homage to the Holmes mythos results in readers asking the author if the trunk is real. “I hate to crush them,” King says, “but I do have to say it’s my tip of the hat to the whole Sherlockian genre.”
Readers are also quick to highlight the similarities between King and Russell, namely the author and the character’s shared study of theology while at university. But King explains the resemblance is “more apparent than actual.”
“I’m always amused by how people think that the author is the character,” King says. “When I wrote a book called Keeping Watch—the protagonist is a Vietnam veteran—I had a number of people who assumed it was written by a man who had been to Vietnam.”
So how does King translate Russell’s love of chess (“I know the moves, but I don’t play”) or Holmes’ passion for beekeeping (“It’s something I’ll save for my non-travel years when I get old and decrepit) to the page? “I lie good,” she says, laughing.
King is currently writing another Russell and Holmes novel with “a very, very large twist in the middle.” The setting remains a mystery, but she hints at further adventures to come.
“One of the places I’m thinking of at the moment is Venice,” King says. “But the one I’d really like—and the reason I left a gap between [the previous book] and Dreaming Spies—would be set in Turkey. There were fascinating things going on there in the mid-1920s.”
In imagining the pair’s future exploits, it’s easy to forget that the capable, self-assured protagonist in Dreaming Spies is the same gangly teen with a hot temper of Beekeeper. Russell’s decade with Holmes has witnessed a lifetime’s worth of kidnappings, assassinations and blackmailed heads of state, but at age 25, she has plenty of 20th-century mysteries left to tackle.