No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, May 24, 2010

2010/43,44: The Language Of Bees and The God of the Hive -- Laurie R. King

‘My brother permits few people inside his guard. Four people in his first sixty-three years, I should say: myself, Dr Watson, Irene Adler, and you. For those inside his affections, Sherlock’s loyalty is absolute. In another man, one might call it blind. Any one of us four could commit cold-blooded murder, in Trafalgar Square, in broad daylight, and he would devote every iota of his energy and wit to proving the act justified.’ (The Language of Bees, ch. 27)
These two books form a single continuous story, so I'm reviewing them together -- this may mean the review becomes vague! I read them as ebooks (for reasons of price and availability), which might also affect the balance of the review: it's harder to flip through an ebook than a paperback novel.

On returning from San Francisco (Locked Rooms) Holmes and Russell barely have time to find Sussex claustrophobic and overly quiet before the arrival of an unexpected visitor -- Holmes' son Damien, 'the offspring of two divas' and a successful Surrealist artist. Cue flashback to a period just after the close of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, when Holmes and Russell (still master and apprentice at that time) spent some time on the Continent: "I need to go to France and Italy for six weeks. Would you care to come with me?"

Context established, it quickly becomes clear that Damien is in trouble, and -- to his shame -- has been forced to come to his father for help. Holmes and Damien head to London: Mary Russell stays in Sussex for a while, investigating a problem with Holmes' beehives and trying to convince herself that she's enjoying the solitude, though it's obvious that she is not on form. The game is afoot, though, and Russell is gradually drawn into a web more complex and far-reaching than even her husband could have expected. The trail leads Holmes and Russell, separately and together, through the bars and studios of Bohemian London, to Oxford and York, round an assortment of Neolithic sites, to attend religious meetings and visit art galleries, by train and boat and aeroplane, to a fairytale dwelling in a forest, and ultimately to the heart of power.

The books are firmly rooted in the mid-Twenties: the difficulties of international communication, the novelty of passenger flight (‘Imperial Airways has been in existence since March ...Not all that many flights, to be sure, but air travel is the way of the future.’). The shadow of the First World War still hangs over society and individuals alike. There's a sense of hectic frivolity -- the Roaring Twenties -- underpinned with madness. Andre Breton is referenced; Augustus John holds court at the Cafe Royal; Aleister Crowley's name appears more than once. (There's a veiled reference to Peter Wimsey, too.) But this is not the world of Doyle's Holmes: London is changing beyond recognition. Holmes and Mycroft are starting to feel their age, and Inspector Lestrade (son of the original) is increasingly exasperated by Holmes' methods. "[I]t was high time to let Holmes know that a Twentieth-Century Scotland Yard would no longer tolerate his meddling and deceptions."

Not that Holmes, even in his sixties, has lost his touch. He's still a master of disguise, amongst other forms of deception. "Reminding himself that there was no virtue like necessity, [he] performed his third virtuous act in twenty-four hours, stooping to theft of the lowest kind." He might not know London as well as he did in his heyday, but he remains a student of human nature and how it may be manipulated.

Mary Russell, child of the century, knows herself rather better than she did at the outset of the series. She's also coming to understand her husband, and why he left London, and something of his past. Though she frequently doubts her own abilities -- and, as mentioned above, is certainly not firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the story -- she becomes, over the course of these two novels, more assured, astute and decisive than before. For reasons of his own, Holmes is happiest to let her take the lead in certain areas of their investigation. Indeed, the two of them follow divergent paths for most of the story -- both operating on the wrong side of the law, but where Mary's wondering "How many books was one permitted in a gaol cell?", Holmes is debating whether to call on the Palace for a reference. Happily, there are also scenes where the partnership (and camaraderie, and even intimacy) surfaces.

In The Language of Bees there are interludes composed solely of dialogue, between Holmes and Damien. In The God of the Hive, King goes further and gives us whole chapters told from different viewpoints, which flesh out Russell's perception of events, and begin to explore the other characters -- both original and canon -- who inhabit Laurie King's milieu. These multiple viewpoints are an effective way to build suspense: when one person's about to discover something that another already knows, the tension rachets up.

There are occasional infelicities of style, possibly more than I've noticed in previous Mary Russell novels ('three people came out of the front door, including the woman, her dog Bubbles, and the man who looked like her brother'). I made a conscious effort to ignore Americanisms such as 'off of'. There are a few apparent non-sequiturs (perhaps I just missed the explanations; perhaps it's intuition on the part of one character or another). And there are several character-threads that, though not essential to the denouement, would've been better if resolved. (Though I wonder if a couple of them might be caught up in a future novel). And there are a couple of cliffhangers that reek of red herring.

But on the whole, a complex and fascinating read that leaves me wanting to see how King stretches herself (and her characters) next. The story told in The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive ends in something of a minor key. Things will never be the same -- in good ways and bad. I want to see how Holmes and Russell work through that situation.

A note on the titles: keeping an eye on bee-related imagery, metaphors and references added another layer of complexity to the story, as well as harking back to the first book in the series. (When Mary Russell, abandoned in Sussex, reads Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen, she gets rather more out of it than she did at fifteen.) Who's the god? And how do the bees talk?

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