Russell, the narrator of The Beekeeper's Apprentice -- this year's "Spokane Is Reading" book selection -- is initially enraged by the arrogance of the renowned detective. The 54-year-old Holmes has retired to the South Downs to pursue his fascination with bees, and he doesn't have time for this inquisitive intruder, whom he mistakes for a boy. But the two quickly warm up to each other and, over the course of Laurie R. King's eight-book series, Holmes and Russell form an unstoppable mystery-solving team -- not to mention a dynamic, loving relationship.
While Spokanites might not be strolling through Riverfront Park with our noses buried in books, our libraries and bookstores are abuzz with excitement about King's Sherlock Holmes spin-off. "For those of us who grew up on Sherlock Holmes, it's so wonderful to see him again," says Susan Creed, the managing librarian at the Downtown Library. But now we get to see Holmes in a new light: through the eyes of an independent, 20th-century woman who is interested in theology -- conflicting with Holmes' bias in favor of scientific, rational thought.
Even if your familiarity with Sherlock Holmes is merely elementary, it's easy to get hooked on the Mary Russell series. In the 12 years since The Beekeeper's Apprentice was published, King has enjoyed hearing from devoted fans. "I have had responses from an amazing variety of people-- from girls age 14 to retired men in assisted living," she says. "It's a fun book, but it also has serious things going on."
This wide-ranging appeal is part of the reason the mystery novel was selected for Spokane Is Reading. Each year, the library committee hunts down a book that will offer something to adult readers of any age -- not just an entertaining plot, but memorable characters, a vivid setting and strong language. King's prolific output also made her a good choice. Besides the Mary Russell series, she has written a five-book series featuring Kate Martinelli, a lesbian detective in San Francisco, and several "one-off," or non-series mysteries. So it shouldn't be hard for readers to get their hands on one of King's many books before next Thursday's visit.
In person, King is every bit as warm, sharp and funny as she is in print. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, she's looking forward to visiting Spokane to talk books. She often learns as much from her presentations as her readers do. "It's good to hear which parts of the books resonate with readers," she says.
Interacting with readers and other writers is also a welcome antidote to the many solitary hours of writing. "I like the contrast," she says. "If I had to sit alone writing for 12 months out of the year, I would go nuts -- even more nuts than I am now." Of course, it's not always easy to make the transition. "Everyone loves you and tells you what a genius you are, but when you get home, you still have laundry to do. When you have teenage kids, they don't think you're a genius -- they just think you didn't put enough milk in their cereal," she says wryly.
Spokane caught reading fever in 2002, when Spokane Is Reading brought Kent Haruf to talk about his novel Plainsong. In adopting a One Book project, Spokane joined cities and towns throughout the United States Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom in working to ignite literary enthusiasm. The community-wide reading programs got their start in 1998, when Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl dreamed up "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" -- now called "Seattle Reads."
Unlike most of the city's reading programs, Spokane Is Reading is the only one aimed at adults. "A lot of adults don't read that much. Most people get done with college and say, 'That's it, I'm done.' This is a way to encourage adults to read," says Eva Silverstone of the Spokane Public Library.
According to Silverstone, more than 600 people attended the literary events organized around Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game in 2004. Last year, 800 people read Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue -- or at least bought the book from a local bookstore or checked it out of the library.
This year promises to be just as successful. All 30 of the library's copies of The Beekeeper's Apprentice are checked out. But while it's the first in the Mary Russell series, there's no reason to be constrained by chronology. Silverstone, whose enjoyment of the first book was based more on character than plot, plans to jump ahead to the seventh in the series, Locked Rooms, because it contains flashbacks to Mary's childhood.
Susan Creed confesses that the first time she picked up The Beekeeper's Apprentice, she couldn't get into it. But then a friend recommended The Game, the sixth in the series. Set in India, the book evokes a strong sense of place -- a place that King knows from traveling with her husband, who was born and raised there. The vivid setting captivated Creed, and pretty soon she couldn't put the book down. "Then I went back and read them all," she says. "And now I'm hooked."
Laurie R. King discusses The Beekeeper's Apprentice on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 1 pm at North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Rd. Call 893-8250. Additional presentation at 7 pm at the Masonic Temple, 1108 W. Riverside Ave. Call 624-2728.