Thursday, February 5, 2015

IN BRIEF: The Case of the Busy Bees

Clifford Witting tries his hand at a master criminal style thriller in The Case of the Busy Bees (1952). This mystery is not a Holmesian adventure with apiaries and beekeeping as its background. The Busy Bees are members of a criminal syndicate stretching from "Land's End to John O'Goats" whose nefarious activities include "kidnapping, extortion, forgery, blackmail, smuggling, coining, fraud, dope-peddling, black market offences on a large scale." And of course murder.

What begins as an eccentric mystery with the theft of a Native American tomahawk from the odd dime museum run by Theophilus Mildwater leads to murder and gangland violence on a grand and brutal scale such as I've not encountered before in any detective novel by Witting. The introduction of a gang of criminals calling themselves the Busy Bees who resort to code names like Apple Nine Zero and Gooseberry One Six, who signal one another with coded phrases and a trademark "Zzzzz" sound effect, and whose leader dubs himself Rex Apis are all plot elements you'd expect to find in a book written twenty to thirty years earlier. But Witting cannot resist this homage to Nigel Morland and Edgar Wallace. And he spares no one as the criminal activity escalates from theft to kidnapping to murder. The body count is high and the surprises come when Witting shows no mercy for any of his often very likable characters. Your favorite is most likely going to end up dead in this book. Even Inspector Charlton, Witting's detective series hero, succumbs to a diabetic coma and is hospitalized for the last third of the book.

I did learn a few things here. Notably the existence of Potter's Museum (now defunct), one of the most bizarre collections of amateur taxidermy in the world. Started by Walter Potter in the summer house near his family owned pub in 1861 his collection eventually grew to over 10,000 pieces. The museum lived out it's nomadic existence in three different locations from the late 19th century through the late 20th century. From 1984 to 2002 much of the collection was exhibited at Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. Finally the museum was shut down in 2003 when the entire collection was sold at auction, sadly realizing in total sales less than what was anticipated. Witting mentions that Potter's Museum served as the inspiration for the Monk Jewel Museum run by Mr. Mildwater in this novel. For those ignorant of Potter's Museum I suggest you take a look at the macabre collection at this tribute website. I guarantee you've never seen groups of stuffed kittens, hamsters, squirrels and bunnies doing the things Potter had them do.

This wasn't one of my favorite Witting books; very atypical compared to his books written in the 1930s and 1940s. The setting is still Lulverton and the surrounding villages. The puzzle aspects are still there. And he planted some devilishly clever clues that show up the errors the villain makes due to his egocentrism and vanity. Most of the solution, however, combining a puzzling murder, the confusing thefts of museum articles, and the identity of Rex Apis is delivered in a lecture with lots of evidence mentioned for the first time in the final chapter. Even with the few fair play clues Witting hasn't delivered a traditional detective novel here. It is pretty much an all-out underworld thriller with a 1920s style homage to a fantasy world of criminals that never really existed.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age bingo card space E5 "Book set in England"


  1. This sounds like a wonderfully bizarre hodgepodge of styles. Just been re-reading some Wallace so might very well be in the mood - I bet it's not easy to find though ... Thanks as ever for the infectious enthusiasm and the great info about that Potter's museum - who knew?!

    1. VERY scarce, this one. I doubt you'll find a copy for sale. It might turn up in a library over in the UK. No US edition at all. I only bought this book a few months ago after looking for it for years. Ended up shelling out quite a chunk of change for my copy. But no DJ on mine. Luckily managed to find this nifty illustration at the Facsimile Dust Jackets website. Otherwise this post would've been illustrated with the two maps included inside the book.

  2. It's a shame it didn't wind up being one of your favorites...the Wallace style appeals to me (when I'm in the right mood) and I like that Facsimile cover too.