Liz Tells Frank What Happened In the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes Novels (Sorta)

Dear Frank,

If there’s anything that makes having a crush on a famous actor less futile and sad, it’s having a crush on a fictional character. And yet, since the age of 11, I have been crushing hard on Sherlock Holmes.

Honestly, I don’t understand people who don’t see the attraction, but they’re probably the same crowd who don’t think smart is sexy, and clearly they can all go to hell. Us right-thinking people over here will be appreciating the wide range of Holmesian film, television and literature available to us — and, when we’re in a particularly saucy mood, making jokes about how good the world’s greatest detective would be in bed. (My personal joke tends to involve some variation on “he’d have no trouble detecting my FILL IN THE BLANK HERE.”)

That said, my personal Top 5 Sherlock Holmes depictions are as follows:

5. Young Sherlock Holmes
4. Benedict Cumberbatch
3. The Great Mouse Detective
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet
1. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels

Sorry, RDJ. Love you, but you come in at #6.

That list is probably blasphemous to the hardcore Holmes fans, and yet, thus is the joy of the public domain. Also, Frank, you might be asking who Mary Russell is? Well, I’m about to tell you.

The Mary Russell series is one that makes me SUPER MAD, because I cannot BELIEVE it took me so long to find out about it, because it is basically the Sherlock Holmes storyline that I have been wanting to read MY ENTIRE LIFE. In fact, somewhere in a notebook in my parents’ house, there might be a few chapters of my own 11-year-old attempt to write the tale of a plucky young woman who’s like Dr. Watson’s niece or something and a BRILLIANT DETECTIVE.

(The only thing I remember about this fiction of mine is that I had a map of the London underground, and was incredibly specific about which tube stops my plucky young heroine utilized — an attention to detail that has not proven to be a habit in my later work.)

Anyways, Mary Russell, when the series begins, is a plucky 15-year-old genius with a TRAGIC PAST who literally stumbles upon the 50-something retired Holmes in the Sussex countryside and becomes his apprentice.

This book, to be totally obvious about it, is called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Russell and Holmes call each other by their last names and spend a lot of time hanging out doing detective stuff and facing Great Danger and it’s pretty adorbs. And despite the fact that we’re talking about a near 40-year age gap, it becomes pretty clear that something’s going down.

From an email exchange with the friend who originally got me into these books:

Me: Is it bad that I’m shipping Holmes/Russell? HARRRRRD?
Megan: NO, NO IT IS NOT!
Me: Without spoilers, will my shipping have real reward? (I’m only a third into book 1.)
Megan: Without any spoilers whatsoever: yes.

Yes. That exact amount of EEEEEEEEEEEEEEs. Because Megan was totally right, Frank! It takes two damn books, but Russell and Holmes get their shit together in a big way, and yeah, that is a crazy huge age difference, but it actually works out okay? It helps that Russell, while a borderline Mary Sue, is pretty well-defined as a strong, independent sort–

Wait, I should explain the Mary Sue thing. The Mary Sue concept is one that comes from fan culture — basically summed up as “Harry Potter and his friends meet a gorgeous, mysterious new student at Hogwarts with beautiful lavender-colored eyes and a remarkable similarity to the writer who’s created her as part of a vaguely masturbatory effort to imagine herself in the world of Harry Potter.”

The reason this archetype is referred to as a “Mary Sue” is because her name is never, ever Mary Sue — which, you could argue, is an argument against including Mary Russell in that trope. She is, however, a brilliant scholar, master of disguise, and really good at darts; it is easy to read some level of idealization into her character.

A handy visual guide to Mary Sues, by DeviantArt user Windfalcon.

Or maybe she’s just a bad-ass? Who knows. The important thing — and why King’s depiction of Sherlock is my non-objective favorite — is that her relationship with Holmes is depicted as one of equals. Despite the whole mushy marriage thing, Holmes and Russell are pretty independent of each other, and he’s cranky and brilliant and funny and manipulative and totally hot for a 58-year-old fictional character.

Oh, speaking of which! Frank, you’ll dig this — the take on Holmes’s fictional status is that he’s a real person, whose adventures were described by Dr. Watson to “literary agent” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who then published them as fiction. And Holmes does not like Doyle, because said adventures got exaggerated in the telling, and also Doyle (as he was in real life) is a crazy Spiritualist who believes in fairies and shit. (This concludes Liz Tells The Actual Frank An Actual Thing He Would Want to Know.)

There are, as of right now, about 11 Mary Russell novels; I’m currently reading the ninth. (I read the first six in January, then decided that I needed to read things that weren’t Mary Russell novels for a little while — basically, just delaying the binging.) Murders have been solved, frauds uncovered, villains foiled — I have been to India and and Palestine and San Francisco and France with Russell and Holmes; I have even been to the moor–

A quick aside: I’d normally hesitate to disregard an entire geographic region, but FUCK THE MOOR. I HATE the moor. The moor is boooooooooooooorrrrrrrrring. The only thing more boring than the moor is reading descriptions of people walking through the moor. NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE MOOR. My least-favorite Mary Russell novel? The Moor. NOTHING AT ALL INTERESTING HAPPENS IN THE MOOR. FUCK THE MOOR.


I’m pretty sure none of the future books take place in the moor, which means my only real problem in life is the fact that at some point, I will run out of Mary Russell novels. And then what will I do? Watch Elementary on CBS, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson? Maybe? After all, a tattooed Sherlock Holmes played by a guy best remembered from Hackers is just completely wrong. But us addicts, we’ll get our fix anywhere.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on July 19, 2012, in Books, Some Spoilers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Just delurking to say that I always enjoy your deadpan wit and utter disregard for some things, which, fuck the moor indeed. I’ll definitely check out these novels now.

    I was already going to give Elementary a chance, because I love me some Sherlock Holmes, but Jonny Lee Miller sealed the deal. He does seem wrong for the role, but he’s adorable.

  2. I wish I could explain the Jonny Lee Miller phenomenon, but I can’t. It isn’t that he’s the world’s greatest actor or that he’s extraordinarily attractive. Still, whenever he pops up in something, like Dexter, I’m always pleasantly surprised to see him.

    It’s just one of those things, I guess. Inexplicable fondness.

    I really liked your post about The Newsroom too, by the way. There’s just something about Aaron Sorkin that rubs me completely the wrong way, even though I admire and enjoy some of his work. It could be that he comes across as an incredibly smug a-hole. Or it could be his whole ‘everything used to be better in the past’ spiel. Um, no dude. Not if you were anything other than a rich, white guy.

    Okay, I’m going back to lurking now.

  3. Oh, I’m so tempted to read these now… but why couldn’t they have made her 18? 15 just seems creepy.

    • It’s not as bad in the books, in part because after they meet, the books jump forward a bit in time to when she is 18, and nothing even vaguely sexual happens in their relationship until that point. But, yeah, I hear ya.

  4. I agree with the “creepy” comment – and I

  5. Marisa Wright

    Having read four books in the series, the age difference has been making me feel icky in each one. I haven’t read the first two books yet, and have only just discovered the relationship started when she was FIFTEEN – what?? OK so maybe there was nothing sexual until she was “of age”, but still . . .

    I guess the author justifies it because Mary is such an exceptional character, enormously mature even at fifteen – but come on, this is a fictional character. It would have been easy for King to have them meet at eighteen instead of fifteen, and avoid the whole thing. Does this woman have issues?

  6. This is quite old, and i’m sure you’ve been through all of the books by now,,,, but.
    You’re wrong about The Moor. The reason you don’t like it is because you have never heard the audio book read by Jenny Sterlin.
    She reads all of Laurie’s Mary Russell Audio books. I read a lot, but listening to an authentic reading with suitable accents and all makes it completely different.

    I listen to The Moor as I fall asleep. I’ve been doing that for over a year now.
    The other books are just as good, just that the accents in that one are something special.

    Anyway ,, try the audiobook if your still reading them. It’s a huge difference and will give you a new perspective on some of it.

  7. And to entertain the fifteen year old issue. Back around 1900 marriage around the age of 15 wasn’t unheard of. Different Times.

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happened In TNT’s “The Librarian” | Liz Tells Frank What Happened In...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: