Sherlock Holmes has had a strange afterlife in fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle put away his pen. Most readers will have heard the famous story of how the public wouldn’t let Conan Doyle kill his most celebrated creation; judging by the number of fictional tributes it seems Holmes’ popularity is undiminished even today. A number of these fall into the ‘novelty’ category (Holmes re-animated after death to fight crime in the 22nd century?) but most have simply faded away. The problem is that borrowing such a famous character inevitably leads to comparisons with the original, and Conan Doyle was a hard act to follow.
You may have gathered by now I’m something of a Sherlock Holmes fan. So when I say that in some respects I think Laurie King’s Mary Russell series actually improve on the original, it’s not a statement I make lightly.
King’s series (beginning with The Beekeepers’ Apprentice) feature Holmes but furnish him with a couple of elements missing in the original – a young female apprentice and an emotional life. It’s the second of these that is the true heart of these books. If I have a criticism of Conan Doyle it is that he hinted at Holmes’ inner life while never providing enough information to satisfy the reader. The cases always came first. While this can be refreshing in an age when fictional detectives seem to require a messy divorce and a ton of emotional baggage, it leaves a modern reader burning to know more.
I don’t want to talk in too much detail about King’s latest, The God of the Hive, in case it discourages readers from going back to read the earlier books. Suffice to say it features international espionage and master criminals, in the best Holmes tradition. It is also likely to keep you awake long past your bedtime – King is truly a master of suspense. My only criticism would be that occasionally the suspense is artificially heightened, for example by exaggeration or cutting off a chapter at a particularly inopportune point. At these times I felt like the joins of the work show a little, and it feels slightly forced rather than appropriately effortless.
The setting, however, seems absolutely effortless, though I have no doubt a substantial amount of research has gone into it. The London of this book is recognisably the same London of Sherlock Holmes; yet it has layers and textures that are far more detailed than Conan Doyle’s work. On the other hand, when you think that most of he Sherlock Holmes stories were originally published as newspaper serials, it makes sense that unnecessary description is omitted.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice stands beside The Complete Sherlock Holmes on my bookshelf. I think it’s appropriate. This is one fictional tribute that bears comparisons with the original, and in my view there is no higher praise.