Friday, March 5, 2010

Books are the bees

I am a devoted reader of mystery novels (like many of you, I started young with Agatha Christie), but haven't experienced too many of them via audio. I was patiently waiting for the Dion Graham audiobook to show up via Interlibrary Loan, when 16 hours of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes landed in my lap. Many holds on this one, plus it wasn't checked out to me ... so I had to squeeze it in. The Language of Bees is Laurie R. King's ninth novel featuring the famous detective (in his twilight years) and his very young wife -- but ideal match in all ways -- Mary Russell. If you haven't read these (or listened), start at the beginning. (We mystery readers are pretty compulsive about this ... so take or leave that last bit of advice.)

In this novel, Russell and Holmes are visited by Holmes' illegitimate son (oh, the purists are rolling!), the surrealist artist Damian Adler (son of Irene Adler, the only villain -- and she wasn't really a villain -- ever to outwit Holmes). Adler's Chinese wife and young daughter have disappeared and Damian needs his father's help to find them. Working independently, Holmes and Russell uncover a disturbing trend of murders (of both humans and animals) at Britain's most famous ancient sites (including the Standing Stones [pictured on the cover], the Cerne Abbas Giant, and the Long Man of Wilmington), likely at the instigation of the leader of a bizarre religious cult. It's a breathless race up the length of England and Scotland to the Orkney Islands to prevent the next death.

I am very fond of these books (why I listened while the time was ticking away on my ILL). Unlike many mystery writers, King does not churn these out at the rate of one per year, they are thoughtful stories with meticulously researched settings and beautifully developed characters well worth knowing. Russell's history (she's only 25) is painstakingly parceled out in each book, leaving you wanting more. There isn't much whodunnit in the books, instead of solving the puzzle the psychological underpinnings of the murderer's actions are given center stage.

It appears that the talented Jenny Sterlin has read the series (with the mysterious exception of one title read by George Guidall). As noted before, Sterlin is an outstanding narrator. She reads quickly without feeling hurried; the suspense of the final chapters as Russell makes her mad dash for Scotland (including a hair-raising plane ride) compels you to keep listening. (I listened to the last four discs in a single day.) Sterlin's talents also lie in characterization -- each is carefully created, distinct and consistent. Her Holmes is dead right: Slightly nasal, languid, condescending. At times, it seems like she is channelling Jeremy Brett (and that's a good thing!). In contrast, she reads Russell with warmth and an occasional uncertainty that is charming -- and lets a listener know where our sympathies should lie. There are two other Holmesian males in this story: Brother Mycroft and son Damian. Each is rendered as formal and distant, consistent with their characters.

The book is very long -- and for me, it spends too much time at the beginning on the mysterious extinction of one of Holmes' bee colonies. (He'd been away for seven months ... Russell thinks perhaps they felt abandoned.) I believe that the title metaphor makes a connection to the communal behavior of other living things -- families, religious organizations, government, etc. And while I think I've got the metaphor, I'm not sure I completely understand it ... do religious cults behave the way of a dying bee colony? (In addition, it's my second bee metaphor audiobook in two months ... stretching my English major brain to the limit!) Nevertheless, this proves to be only a mild irritation in an overall splendid listen.

Although murder is foiled at the very end of this book, King leaves many, many things unresolved, so perhaps the metaphor will make sense after reading the soon-to-be-published 10th Russell/Holmes novel: The God of the Hive. I'm on the hold list (to read ... too many other novels to listen to).

In search of a pithy title for this blog post, I found this quote from the Romantic James Russell Lowell: "Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind." A fine metaphor for a librarian!


Playing by the book said...

Sounds like an interesting book, and I love the quote you found - just perfect!

Heather J. said...

I'm new to your blog - just found you through Audiobook Jukebox. Hi! :)

I love this series but I haven't tried the audio version yet. That said, this was my least favorite of all the books. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't as good as the others for me.