Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell novels are based around a conceit just goofy enough to work as a series of tea-cozy mysteries: In his late-middle age, Holmes wed his decades-younger apprentice, and now the two share a life of wedded bliss and crime-fighting. They call each other by their last names, use their superpowers of observation for good, and drop in on the established Holmes supporting cast from time to time. It’s a surprisingly durable formula, and Russell makes a surprisingly good character.
That said, the series’ greatest strength is the chemistry between Russell and Holmes, and every book can be judged more or less accurately by just how long the two characters spend apart. Sadly, The Language Of Bees spends half its length with the two having completely separate adventures. So while Holmes is off-page investigating the kidnapping of the granddaughter and daughter-in-law he just learned he had, Russell is hanging out in Sussex, learning all about beehive management in painstaking, often boring detail.
Eventually, of course, Russell’s observations help puzzle out the case, but the book takes its time getting to this point, and the beehive mystery is never interesting nor invigorating enough to serve as the kind of character study of Holmes King seems to want it to be. Fortunately, things pick up around the halfway mark, and the back half of the book, while deliberately paced, is a solid mystery with some nicely detailed action sequences.
King, as always, is excellent at evoking the means and mores of a bygone era (a late section where Russell embarks on a seemingly never-ending airplane trip nicely details the perils of air travel in the 1920s), and her work at suggesting the remoteness of some of the places the detectives visit is superb.
But pacing problems aside, The Language Of Bees’ greatest failing is that its mystery is too easy to predict. While an attempt is made to lay out many suspects, it quickly becomes clear the kidnapper is one of two people. Most disappointingly, the solution relies on a never-before-seen character who pops in and tosses off some information it would be impossible for the protagonists to have come by on their own. Holmes and Russell can be great characters in King’s hands, but Bees too often reduces their investigations to the 1920s equivalent of scrupulous Google searches.