The story begins this way:
"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."From this inauspicious beginning springs an unlikely relationship: the retired Sherlock Holmes takes on a fifteen-year-old girl as his apprentice, protege, and eventually partner. And a lonely orphan named Mary Russell acquires a teacher, mentor, and friend.
The first part of the book details how they become acquainted, how Holmes begins teaching Russell different aspects of his very specific skill set, and how Russell then helps him solve a couple of fairly trivial mysteries. (Although Holmes is nominally retired, he still takes on quite a few cases, you see.) They then take a case that involves a kidnapped child and is quite exciting. Not to mention its my favorite part of the book.
The second half of the book... I can't talk much about without divulging spoilers. Russell goes off to university, and then something from Holmes' past crops up, and that's all I can say.
Why do I love this book so much? Partly because I see a lot of myself in Mary Russell, I think. Not that I'm a deducting genius or anything, but she's very independent, tired of being treated a certain way because she's female and young, and just generally someone I would like to be more like. Also... I would love to be Sherlock Holmes' protege. Wow. Wouldn't that be amazing?
But a huge part of why I love this book is the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes himself. He's a bit mellower than you tend to see him in the canon, partly because he's aging and partly because Russell avows he's never been as austere as Watson portrayed him. Still acerbic, still abrupt, still uncompromising, but with an underlying humanity that is not always so evident in the canon (though it does peek through often enough that this portrayal does not seem off). I remember that the first time I read this book, I laughed aloud in the break room at work through the first two or three chapters, so delighted was I by how entirely Holmesish Holmes was being.
And yes, Watson figures in here too, though only peripherally. Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, and an Inspector Lestrade (son of the Lestrade from Holmes' years in London) all appear as well. And that's another thing I love about this book: getting to spend more time with these dear fictional friends. But I think what I love most about this book is how it makes me so very happy. Reading it is pure fun. Simply thinking about it makes me smile.
This is the first book in a series, and I'm working on a post about the series as a whole. But this book works just fine on its own if you don't want to read the whole series. It's the only one I've read more than once or twice, and the only book in the series that I've bought new. While the whole series is great fun overall, this book rises above the others, in my opinion, and is something akin to perfection.
Interestingly, although I'm not a fan of foreshadowing as a rule, it doesn't bother me in these books in the slightest. Which is good, since it does crop up rather often. Maybe because these are presented as Mary Russell's memoirs, and so it feels rather like the way I would tell a story of my life? "Listen, this is why I'm telling you this part -- it was important in hindsight," that sort of thing. I'm not sure.
Particularly Good Bits:
While I grew and flexed the muscles of my mind, the bodies of strong young men were being poured ruthlessly into the 500-mile gutter that was the Western Front, an entire generation of men subjected to the grinding, body-rotting, mind-shattering impossibility of battle in thigh-deep mud and drifts of searing gas, under machine-gun fire and through tangles of wire (p. 37-38).
Had I missed the Simpson case, had Holmes simply disappeared into the thin summer air (as he had done with numerous other cases) and not allowed me to participate, God alone knows what we would have done when December's cold hit us, unprepared and unsupported (p. 90).
He did not sound hurt, only resigned, and it occurred to me that Holmes was well accustomed to deceiving this man, because he was, as I had said, not gifted with the ability to lie, and thus quite simply could not be trusted to act a part. For the first time I became aware of how that knowledge must have pained him, how saddened he must have been over the years at his failure, as he would have seen it, his inability to serve his friend save by unwittingly being manipulated by Holmes' cleverer mind (p. 183).
This self-contained individual, this man who had rarely allowed even his sturdy, ex-Army companion Watson to confront real risk, who had habitually over the past four years held back, been cautious, kept an eye out, and otherwise protected me; this man who was a Victorian gentleman down to his boots; this man was proposing to place not only his life and limb into my untested, inexperienced, and above all female hands, but my own life as well (p. 258).
"To a mind attuned to observation and deduction, the product reveals the mind of its creator." He squinted up at the great, ponderous blocks that loomed up to hide the sky, and rubbed his hands together slowly. "Take Mozart -- frenzied gaiety and weeping put to music. The agony of the man is at times unbearable" (p. 260).
I became, in other words, more like Holmes than the man himself: brilliant, driven to a point of obsession, careless of myself, mindless of others, but without the passion and the deep-down, inbred love for the good in humanity that was the basis of his entire career (p. 287).
If this was a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for suspense, danger to a child, the occasional mild curse word, and violence.