The Beekeeper’s Apprentice vs. A Slight Trick of the Mind

Title: A Slight Trick of the Mind
Author: Mitch Cullin
Publication Year: 2005
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 253
Count for Year: 22

Title: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Or On The Segregation of the Queen)
Author: Laurie R. King
Publication Year: 1994
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 347
Count for Year: 27

How I discovered

I came across the first book while shelf-reading while working at our local library, and instead of placing it into my ongoing list of “books I’ve ‘found’ while shelf-reading”, I decided on a whim to take it home and read it. As for King’s book, I had heard of her book through various book bloggers including Carrie of Books and Movies, who had sung the praises of the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series of which this book is the first one.

Synopsis of A Slight Trick of the Mind

In 1947, ninety-three-year-old Sherlock Holmes lives out his retirement in a remote Sussex farmhouse with a housekeeper and her young son, Roger, who stumbles upon information about Holmes’s secret past and long-ago infatuation with Mrs. Keller, while the one-time master detective tends his apiary, writes in journals, and copes with the fading powers of his mind.

— from the publisher via Google Books

Synopsis of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Set in 1914, a young woman, Mary Russell meets a retired beekeeper. His name is Sherlock Holmes, and he sees a fellow intellect in 15-year-old Mary, so takes her as his apprentice. Together, they tackle crimes and investigations, as Sherlock becomes Mary’s mentor and friend.
— from the website Fantastic Fiction


I started reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes last year as part of a now defunct online reading challenge, because I always wanted to read them but just never had gotten around to them. While I’m still continuing the series, when I came across Cullin’s book at the library, I thought it might make for an interesting diversion, and at first, it was and showed promise from the opening paragraph as the reader is presented with a different Holmes:

Upon arriving from his travels abroad, he entered his stone-built farmhouse on a summer’s afternoon, leaving the luggage by the front door for his housekeeper to manage. He then retreated into the library, where he sat quietly, glad to be surrounded by his books and the familiarity of home. For almost two months, he had been away, traveling by military train across India, by Royal Navy Ship to Australia, and then finally setting foot on the occupied shores of postwar Japan. Going and returning, the same interminable routes had been taken– usually in the company of rowdy enlisted men, few of whom acknowledged the elderly gentleman dining or sitting beside them (that slow-walking geriatric, searching his pockets for a match he’d never find, chewing relentlessly on a Jamaican cigar). Only on the rare occasions when an informed officer might announce his identity would the ruddy faces gaze with amazement, assessing him in that moment: For while he used two canes, his body remained unbowed, and the passing of the years hadn’t dimmed his keen gray eyes; his snow-white hair, thick and long, like his beard, was combed straight back in the English fashion.

This Holmes has no pipe but a cigar, long white hair and a beard and is, in a word, old.

The reader also gets to hear Holmes in his own words, as imagined by Cullin, instead of through the prism of Watson, as imagined by Doyle. The son of Holmes’ housekeeper discovers a manuscript that Holmes started years ago but never finished about an old case. The reader is also taken back to Japan, where Holmes just had been visiting, and then returned to the present, to continue his growing friendship with the son.

However, for all the promise, three-quarters of the way through the book, I began to wonder where all this was going and by the end, I realized that it was nowhere. While the journey at times was intriguing, to encounter a Holmes with whom I previously had not been acquainted, the conclusion of the journey was less than satisfying — even though I thought portions of the book were extremely well-written.

Like the opening paragraph of Cullin’s book, the opening paragraph of King’s book also showed promise:

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. In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading amongst the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.

However, I think looking back, it showed promise for a different reason: this wasn’t just going to be about Holmes. This was going to be about another character’s perception of Holmes, something that for the most part that was lacking in Cullin’s work, and also about that character’s interaction with Holmes, something that was found in Cullin’s work — but importantly, without the mystery.

Here, unlike in Cullin’s work, and like in Doyle’s original work, the reader is presented with mystery as Holmes finds a kindred soul in the young Mary Russell, a young woman with whom he can continue his exploration of mysteries. The reader is also presented with a series of mysteries, which should be familiar ground for readers of Doyle’s original stories, most of which were published in serial form.

For me, I think this is why King’s book worked for me while Cullin’s didn’t: mystery. King gives us mystery, not only the mysteries that are on seen on the surface, but also just who is this Mary Russell and how is her relationship going to develop with Holmes. Cullin, meanwhile, gives us no mystery, not only any mystery for Holmes to solve, but any mystery for us to solve.

That is why in the end, I give his book a 3 out of 5, and only that high, because it was a short book and also well-written in parts, even if the conclusion was less than satisfying and I give King’s book a 5 out of 5 as it is a very good first book of a series and makes me want to read all the rest.

5- Classic, must read
4- Worth owning a copy
3- Worth picking up at library
2- Worth skimming at the bookstore
1- Worth being a doorstop

FTC Disclosure: I didn’t receive a copy of either of these book from the publisher, but took them both out from my local library.

5 responses to “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice vs. A Slight Trick of the Mind

  1. I commented before but it must have been lost in cyberspace. This is the blog comment equivalent of an, “I told ya so!” Glad you loved it, too. 🙂

    • First, again, sorry about your comment being lost…I really don’t know what happened. Second, you did tell me so and you were so right. I loved it and am looking forward to the next one. Now I just need to get back to finishing the original Sherlock Holmes stories, because there’s still nothing like the original. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Looking back at my reading in the month of June « an unfinished person (in this unfinished universe)

  3. I’ve never heard of this alternative and romantic take of Holmes.
    5/5 eh ? I think I’ll check it out – but is it as exciting and thrilling as the younger Holmes ?

    • unfinishedrambler

      It’s pretty good…or so my alter ego tells me. Personally I prefer guns, lots of guns, a la The Matrix. 😉