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Literature / Mary Russell

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"I see before me one Mary Russell, named after her paternal grandmother... She is, let us see... fifteen years of age, and despite her youth and the fact that she is not at school she intends to pass the University entrance examinations... She is obviously left-handed, one of her parents was Jewish — her mother, I think? Yes, definitely the mother — and she reads and writes Hebrew. She is at present four inches shorter than her American father — that was his suit?"

Mary Russell is the protagonist of a series of detective novels by Laurie R. King based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. After her parents and brother are killed in a car crash, 15-year-old Mary returns to the family home on the Sussex Downs. There she meets Sherlock Holmes, who retired twelve years ago in 1903 and has become a beekeeper. He is surprised to find that she shares his talent for deduction, and she becomes both his friend and his apprentice. Later novels upgraded her to wife.

So far there are twelve novels in the series with a thirteenth on the way, and they are all set between 1915 and 1924. In order of publication, they are:

  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Set between 1915 and 1918, covers Holmes and Russell's first meeting and the three years she spent as his apprentice. Then a mysterious genius starts trying to kill them.
  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women. Mary celebrates her 21st birthday (complete with independence from an unpleasant aunt and a large inheritance) by going out on the town. She runs into an old friend who introduces her to the charismatic Margery Childe. Margery runs the New Temple of God, a progressive, intellectual group that fascinates Mary. But somehow, rich young women keep dying and leaving Margery money...
  • A Letter of Mary. An archaeologist whom Holmes and Russell met in Jerusalem appears in England with an ancient letter — which, when translated, is addressed "From Mariam, an apostle of Jesus the Anointed one, to my sister in the town of Madgala." Since nobody else would believe the letter is real, she's brought it to them — just in case. A few days later, she turns up murdered.
  • The Moor. Holmes and Russell return to the site of one of his most famous cases... Baskerville Manor.
  • O Jerusalem. This book takes place out of chronological order — it's a flashback to a point near the end of the first book when Holmes and Russell found it necessary to disappear for a while. Holmes's brother Mycroft suggests that, if they're leaving England anyway, they may as well make themselves useful, and sends them to Jerusalem to... actually, half the mystery in this one is what Mycroft and his Palestinian allies want.
  • Justice Hall. This book takes place after The Moor, but reads more like a sequel to O Jerusalem — which is part of why O Jerusalem was published out of order. While in Palestine, two of Holmes and Russell's closest allies were Ali and Mahmoud, a pair of spies who pretend — very well, according to Holmes — to be Arabs but are actually British aristocrats. Now, several years later, they're back in England, and unless they can find another heir for the title Justice Hall, they can never go back to Palestine.
  • The Game. Mycroft Holmes summons his brother and sister-in-law to his rooms late one evening, and informs them that they're going to India to rescue a kidnapped spy. This doesn't strike Mary as particularly unusual until she reads the name on the spy's records — Kimball O'Hara, hero of Rudyard Kipling's book Kim. (She does admit that she's in no position to say "You mean he's REAL?" being married to a man most people consider a figment of an out-of-work doctor's imagination.)
  • Locked Rooms. Holmes and Russell are apparently taking the long way home from India (Holmes mentions a three-week stay in Japan, which might be hinting at another flashback book later), and Russell decides to stop in San Francisco, her hometown, to settle the details of her inheritance. Between the odd wording of her father's will, the people who keep trying to kill her and the three family friends who were killed within a few months of the "accident", she soon realizes her family was murdered...
  • The Language of Bees. The first part of an arc, it deals with the mystery of a disappearing beehive, and the darker story of the disappearing wife and daughter of Holmes' talented and disturbed artist son, Damien Adler (Irene Adler was his mother). Holmes and Russell explore Damien's dark past, which involves the Shanghai underworld, the London bohemian scene, and a series of sacrifices and suicides that have something to do with a cult called 'the Children of Lights.'
  • The God of the Hive (published April 2010) is the conclusion of the arc introduced in the previous book. Russell and Holmes are trying to make it back to London but they are separated, each are burdened by the proceeding events, they are being pursued and obstacles appear at every turn. Then there's Mycroft's problem.
  • The Pirate King. Trying to avoid an uncomfortable visit with her brother-in-law, Russell ends up as part of a film crew filming a version of The Pirates of Penzance. Hiring real pirates to play the pirates turns out to not be a good idea.
  • Garment of Shadows follows Russell some time after the events of Pirate King in which Russell wakes up in Fez with blood on her hands and no memory whatsoever. The book follows her as she tries to figure out what happened to her with Holmes not far behind. Meanwhile, a civil war is forming on the outskirts of the city.
  • Dreaming Spies follows a brief period between Locked Rooms and Language of Bees. Holmes and Russell are planning a visit to Japan for a small vacation when suddenly a run with a blackmailer and a ninja sends the detective couple on the hunt for a mysterious book.
  • The Murder of Mary Russell. Blood spills in Russell's home and it all ties to the secret life of the long suffering Mrs. Hudson.
  • Island of the Mad is about an escaped Bedlam patient leading Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes into Venice- where parties, facism, and Cole Porter are on the rise....

The Mary Russell series provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Guardian: Russell's aunt, whom she lives with after her parents are killed, is a greedy, controlling woman who sometimes goes out of her way to make Russell's life miserable for the hell of it. Russell hates her so much that she's never even named in the books.
  • Batman Gambit: The Big Bad of The Beekeeper's Apprentice attempts one, but Holmes defies it once he realizes what she's trying to do:
    Holmes: Her actions tell me that it is what she wants me to do. She knows me well enough to assume that I will perceive her intent and refuse to cooperate. Therefore I shall do what she wants.
  • The Beard: Marsh and Iris in Justice Hall, to one another.
  • Becoming the Mask: Ali and Mahmoud, the deep cover agents in O Jerusalem, have spent so much time in Palestine that they've gone native. Ali/Alistair finds it impossible to take up his old identity in Justice Hall. Mahmoud/Marsh hates it just as much, but is better at hiding it.
  • Berserk Button: Arthur Conan Doyle's spiritualism, for Holmes. Being a rational, scientific man, he is loath to be associated with what he sees as superstitious nonsense.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Russell is severely myopic, to the point that she compares London's infamous fogs to her vision without her glasses.
  • Break Them by Talking: Holmes does this in the conclusion of Beekeeper's Apprentice when he provokes Moriarty's daughter into attacking him directly when she had him held at gunpoint, insulting her father's life and how it all ended.
  • The Butler Did It: Invoked and lampshaded in the first book during one of the smaller cases.
    Russell: (affronted) Are you telling me the butler did it?
    Holmes: I'm afraid it does happen.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The 11th book, Pirate King, opens with a note from Russell saying that "you have my full permission to regard it as fiction."
  • Chessmaster: Mycroft. Some of Holmes' plans approach this.
  • Compressed Vice: Russell is shown getting addicted to heroin very quickly thanks to the use of morphine years after her car crash. While getting over this is a major plot point in Monstrous Regiment, it is rarely mentioned after.
  • Covers Always Lie: Looking at the book cover shown in the page image, would you guess that the main character of the book is a blonde, blue-eyed, near-sighted tomboy?
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mostly Holmes and Russell, though most other characters get a chance.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Mahmoud and Ali in O Jerusalem.
  • Direct Line to the Author: King explicitly claims to be working from Mary Russell's own accounts of her adventures. The same is retroactively claimed for Arthur Conan Doyle and Watson's journals, and in The Game for Rudyard Kipling and Kimball O'Hara.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe
  • Dr. Psych Patient: Island of the Mad has an odd and complicated example. The very creepy doctor apparently in charge of the asylum on Poveglia is an insane patient — but he's actually the one and only patient, as all the apparent patients are a commune of abused women getting away from their abusers. The doctor, although he's a legitimate doctor, is an insane relative of one of them, who is being cared for there while also being used as a figurehead for the outside world.
  • Fanfic: It is one.
  • Flanderization: King has been accused of this in regards to Watson.
    • Watson does get more respect in later books though.
  • Forced Addiction: In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the villains at one point kidnap Mary, hold her prisoner for several weeks, and forcibly addict her to morphine, as part of a plot to kill her and make it look as if she was a decadent Bright Young Thing who died by accident. Realistically, once she escapes she has little difficulty in going cold turkey, even though it's physically unpleasant.
  • Framing Device: The modern-day introductions.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Well, not very girlish, but she is (at first) a schoolgirl wears her hair in two long braids that she wraps around her head and pins, a style she keeps as an adult.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Russell wound up with a lot of scar tissue from the crash that killed the rest of her family, and picks up more as the books go on. The most notable is the gunshot wound she sustains in The Beekeeper's Apprentice.
  • Hates Wearing Dresses: Russell. Mostly because she finds them impractical, though she'll don one if the occasion calls for it.
  • Historical Domain Character
    • O Jerusalem has appearances by several historical figures who were involved in Palestine in the period, including Lawrence of Arabia.
    • Dashiell Hammett is a character in Locked Rooms.
    • Island of the Mad has a number of real-world American ex-pats in Venice, most significantly Cole Porter.
  • Historical Fiction
  • Honorary Uncle: Russell eventually comes to call Watson "Uncle John".
  • Huge Schoolgirl: Russell fits this trope as a teenager, being close to six feet tall even at fifteen. She mentions specifically that she was ungainly and a hazard around fragile things, until Holmes set her up with martial arts lessons to get her limbs under control.
  • Inheritance Murder: In one of the novels, this turns out to be the motive after Holmes and Russell spend a considerable amount of time following up a Red Herring. Holmes is disgusted, not so much about the wasted time as because he'd been enjoying having a case that for once wasn't just "did it for the money".
  • Insufferable Genius: Holmes, of course. Russell is usually better, though, in the earliest books, she'll occasionally be obnoxious just to get a rise out of him.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover
    • Lord Peter Wimsey has a cameo appearance in A Letter of Mary.
    • Kim is a significant character in The Game.
  • Last-Name Basis: Mary Russell and the detective refer to each other as "Russell" and "Holmes" respectively. Even after they get married.
  • Lethal Chef: Russell. When Holmes tells her he didn't think it was possible to make tinned beans taste undercooked, she takes it as a sign that her cooking is improving.
  • Master of Disguise: Holmes and Russell, though his fame sometimes makes this difficult and it's implied that the townspeople where they live are humouring them.
  • May–December Romance: See above; Russell is several decades younger than Holmes.
  • Mistaken for Gay:
    • When Russell asked if her presence was an embarrassment, Holmes replied that it would be more embarrassing for him, a renowned bachelor, if she were a boy.
    • In The Language of Bees, Russell briefly mentions getting hit on in a London nightspot by a Butch Lesbian who recognised that she was a cross-dressing woman and mistook her for a fellow subculture member. Russell's disdain for the woman pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for the "Russell and Holmes are both closet gay" headcanon among an element of the fandom.
  • No Periods, Period: While it's mentioned in The Beekeeper's Apprentice that she learned about puberty from Mrs. Hudson (being at the right age to need to know that sort of thing), there's never any other reference to it—not even in O Jerusalem, where it would realistically cause a few problems.
  • Orgy of Evidence: In The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the mastermind leaves behind a plethora of evidence in the cab as a deliberate taunt to Holmes.
  • Paper Key-Retrieval Trick: Holmes does this to gain access to Mary's locked bedroom in A Monstrous Regiment of Women.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Russell has lots of them, mostly nightmares about re-living the car crash that killed the rest of her family.
  • Percussive Prevention: Holmes knocks Mary out to prevent her from attempting to dive into the river after him in A Monstrous Regiment of Women.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: The novella "Beekeeping for Beginners" tells the first months of Holmes's and Russell's friendship from Holmes's point of view, with some revelations she never worked out notably, that Holmes was suicidally depressed at the time they met, and that one of her cousins really was trying to kill her over the inheritance.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: The Hughenfort motto from Justice Hall, Justitia foritudo mea est, "Righteousness is my strength".
  • Public Secret Message: Holmes and Russell frequently use the "agony column" of the Times to send messages to each other in a kind of code.
  • Quest for Identity: Kinda averted in "Garment of Shadows" as the book opens up with this trope but it isn't the main focus of the book.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Holmes and Russell get married at the end of Monstrous Regiment.
  • Rescue Romance: This happens while Russell and Holmes are pretending not to be in love. They can't start the romance until they've both snarked to their satisfaction, though
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Holmes always looks fresh and stylish.
  • Sherlock Scan
    • Of course.
    • Russell demonstrates her credibility to Inspector Lestrade by doing this to one of his officers. She and Holmes do it to each other when they first meet. She's at a disadvantage, though, because she's read all Dr. Watson's books — which leaves her with nothing to deduce.
  • Shown Their Work: Good grief, yes. Whether history, early 20th century culture, or theology, King has done an immense amount of research for each book.
  • Sleep Cute: Occurs in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, during the She Is Not My Girlfriend stage of Sherlock Holmes's friendship with Mary Russell, and Watson makes this observation when the two fall asleep in a carriage, leaning against each other.
  • Snark Knight: Holmes
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Almost the entirety of Holmes and Russell's interpersonal communication.
  • So What Do We Do Now?:
    Russell: Is it always so grey and awful at the end of a case?
    Holmes: Not always. Just usually.
    Russell: Hence the cocaine?
    Holmes: Hence, as you say, the cocaine.
  • Succession Crisis: Justice Hall revolves around this.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: Discussed in Beekeeper's Apprentice, and a view clearly held by the villain, the daughter of Professor Moriarty; she attempts to force Holmes to sign a confession ruining his own reputation and then kill himself or she will kill Mary, and Holmes in turn provokes her into attacking him in person when she has him at gunpoint by pointing out that Moriarty's death was essentially suicide, as he confronted Holmes in an isolated area while unarmed and aware that Holmes was the stronger of the two.
  • Take Off Your Clothes: During the She's Not My Girlfriend stage of their friendship, Sherlock Holmes says absentmindedly to Mary to take off her clothes so they can put together her disguise for a case. He says this so matter-of-factly that she actually begins to do it. Then Mycroft interrupts.
    Mycroft: Perhaps this isn't the best idea.
    Holmes: What are you talking abo— (looks at Russell) Oh.
    (major blushing ensues for both Holmes and Russell)
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. Russell sees one for a time after the car accident that killed her family.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: In The Language of Bees, the Big Bad has a knife made of meteor-metal that he uses for blood sacrifices.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Russell can be this at times.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Can be read by everyone, but you miss a lot without a working knowledge of early 20th century life and a large vocabulary, hopefully including some period English slang.
  • Villainous Legacy: The villain in Beekeeper's Apprentice is ultimately identified as Moriarty's daughter.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Russell often wanders around dressed as a man, as she finds men's clothing more comfortable and practical. When she first meets Holmes, he thinks she's a boy, to her hilarious indignation. She spends most of the opening of Monstrous Regiment of Women wandering London dressed as a guy, and the entirety of her and Holmes's stay in Palestine pretending to be a boy.
  • World War I: The first book takes place during it and most later books reference its influence.