When I sat down in 1987 and wrote the opening line of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, what did I—an at-home, 35 year-old mother of young children—imagine would happen?
I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.
Did I have the faintest glimmer of an imagination that, three decades later, I would be thinking about my sixteenth novel in the series? Would my wildest dreams have known that most of those would be New York Times bestsellers? Or that people—readers, other writers—might regard me as any kind of an expert on…well, anything, really?
Nope. At the time I sat down and wrote those words, I knew nothing about the early 20th century, or about southern England. I knew less than nothing about Sherlock Holmes. At the time, I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story about a young woman with a mind like that of The Great Detective.
But once your character has come of age—which happens for Mary Russell in the second book, when she turns 21 and has to decide which path her life will follow—then what?
A series is faced with that same decision. Do I write characters who are fixed, in personality if not in time, and give them adventures that can be read in any order? Or do I let each episode shape those characters, giving the series an overall narrative arc?
When I began the Russell “memoirs” (they’re written in first person) I was not terribly interested in Sherlock Holmes. As a supporting actor, as the pattern on which Russell’s mind was formed, Holmes was both fun and useful—if nothing else, contrasting a middle-aged Victorian male to a young 20th century feminist offered me a near endless source of conflict and snappy dialogue.
But one of the intriguing things about the Conan Doyle detective is how somehow, despite his façade of being a cold and unresponsive thinking machine, we feel that Holmes is driven by very human impulses—a passion for justice, a deep need to set things right. As John D. MacDonald put it (in the 1984 edition of Mystery Writing Handbook):
We remember Holmes as a man who, primarily, was troubled in spirit, was obsessed with the sense of evil, whose arrogance was defensive.
In other words: anything but coldly inhuman.
The awareness of that side of the man gradually permeated my own version of him, and made possible a series of 16 books that still interest their writer (and, one gathers, their readers). Around the fourth or fifth book, I started to become interested in Holmes as a character, rather than as a foil for Mary Russell. How would the devastation of the Great War have affected him, I wondered? What about the man in 1915, as opposed to 1880, opened him up to taking an apprentice—and a female one at that? And how would that apprentice-turned-partner have challenged him, as clearly Dr. Watson had not?
How would both of these extraordinary characters have changed, over time?
And with that, the Russell & Holmes series developed a narrative arc, about something larger than the adventures of two phenomenal minds.
Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of 27 novels and other works, including the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories (from The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, named one of the 20th century’s best crime novels by the IMBA, to 2018’s Island of the Mad). She has won an alphabet of prizes from Agatha to Wolfe, been chosen as guest of honor at several crime conventions, and is probably the only writer to have both an Edgar and an honorary doctorate in theology. She was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars in 2010, as “The Red Circle.”