Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Language of Bees

The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King, is the mystery novel I've been passing up other things to finish this week. As has been widely noted, it ends with a cliff-hanger, but that doesn't diminish the shape of the narrative, as the plot is resolved satisfactorily, if not permanently. The experience of reading this novel, which for me took place largely outside, was disconcerting because of the appearance of a small drawing of a bee at the top of every numbered page. I kept putting down my glass of iced tea and shaking the book to get the bug off.

Even if you're new to the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, you can probably enjoy this novel on its own. But if you haven't read the previous ones, reading this one will make you want to go back and start from the beginning, with The Beekeeper's Apprentice. One of the things I like best about the relationship between Sherlock and Mary is the way he knows her strengths and relies on her with what seems to be complete trust. That's a more romantic story than I've found in many a romance novel.

There are other idiosyncratic things that I love about this novel. One is that at the beginning of the story, when Holmes and Russell are traveling home to Sussex, he gets the same feeling I often get when we approach central Ohio at the end of a trip elsewhere in the wide world: "Holmes shifted and reached for his cigarette case, and the abrupt motion, coming when it did, suddenly brought the answer to Holmes' mood as clearly as if he had spoken aloud: He felt Sussex closing in over his head....it had become small, dull, tedious, and claustrophobic." Except, of course, that I'm more likely to stop at a convenience store and buy something terribly sweet at that point, since I don't smoke.

Another thing I love is that when Mary, a theological scholar, discusses her suspicions with an old teacher, they conclude that what they're dealing with must be...necromancy:
"'...when there were objects that resemble quill trimmings at the murder sites, stained by what appears to be dried blood, and bits of black candle-wax as well, we had to wonder.'
'Necromancy,' she pronounced, her old voice quivering with distaste. "From nekros and manteid: 'dead divination.' Blood spells and invocations. Sealing a covenant. The darkest of the dark arts.'"

And finally, I love the part where a character went to "Gare de Lyon, and boarded a train for Marseilles" because I'm not enough of a seasoned traveler to take it in stride when a fictional character does the same thing I just did a month before, especially when that character is in a novel set in the early part of the 20th century!

King does the language and the time period well, as far as I can tell. Certainly her writing is good enough to get me past any minor lapses. She uses her chosen time period and first-person narrator (Russell) for occasional humor: "Some day, I reflected, we should have to invent a means of actually locating a person based on a finger-print, as photographs were circulated to police departments now." And King's ear for early-century and Holmesian diction is occasionally a conscious pleasure for her reader, as here:
"'The author's diction offends you?'
'The author's arrogance and assumptions offend me. His dedication to the idea that all happenstance is fate offends me. His imprecision offends me. His images are both pretentious and disturbing. The sense of underlying threat and purpose are...' I heard myself speaking in the erudite shorthand the Holmes brothers used, and I cut it short. 'He scares me silly.'"

For me, at least, the pleasure of reading the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes counts for a lot:
"'I hope you know what you're doing, Holmes.'
One grey eye came open. 'My dear Russell,' he said lightly. 'I have been deceiving the official police since before you were born. At that art, I am the expert.'"

Most of all, though, King's characters are so alive and so appealing that reading her novel is like being with immensely clever people whose company you enjoy. I long to know someone like Mary's theology teacher who "delivered a wickedly perceptive and academically precise flaying of the rector's homily" after church one Sunday. It's like getting in on the conversation at the Algonquin Round Table. Do you know people that clever? Do they have time to meet and talk anymore, or are their most of their witticisms weighed in the moments we all have before we click on "publish"?

5 comments:

Betty said...

After reading your review, I'm going to have to start on this series. I've been searching for a nice mystery for awhile (not normally my favorite genre), and I'd say these books sound very promising! :-)

Jeanne said...

Betty, I started reading mysteries relatively late in life; this series is my absolute favorite.

Karen said...

I *love* King's Mary Russell series. I own most of them, actually, and that's not as common for me as it is for you. I have spent much of my adult life relying on libraries more than on bookstores.

In fact, almost the only one I can't reread is _Justice Hall_, and that not because it is lacking. It is simply too well done to be borne, given its plot.

I have Language of Bees on my birthday list; if I haven't ILL'ed it before then, I'm sure to pick up a copy come September.

Nymeth said...

I've been craving some good books set before/during/right after WWI, and your post made me realize that this series would be perfect!

Eva said...

Yay! I love finding out other people adore this series. :D