Friday, August 14, 2015

FFB: A Taste for Honey - H. F. Heard

Now that Ian McKellan is entrancing moviegoers with his performance as the retired apiarist Sherlock Holmes all I can think of is bees. And Holmes. I also happen to be immersing myself in the crime fiction of two writers who were both avowed Holmes addicts -- Gerald Heard and Beverley Nichols. It's been difficult not to think of Holmes for the past couple of weeks. And then, of course, I have also read Mitch Cullin's beautiful novel A Slight Trick of the Mind on which the movie Mr. Holmes is based. I remember much of Cullin's delicate prose, the talk of bees and the education of the young boy at the hands of the aged Holmes. So today I thought I'd write about a book I think all mystery enthusiasts ought to not only be aware of but a book that should be essential reading.

A Taste for Honey (1941) by H. F. Heard is one of the earliest and most cleverly disguised Holmes pastiches in the genre. It's an unusual for book for many reasons: Heard's densely rich somewhat self-consciously ornamental prose; the mixture of elements from the traditional detective novel, the horror novel and the mad scientist genre; but most of all the manner in which he wraps the old man detective in a mystery then drapes him in a shroud of enigma (to paraphrase Churchill's famous quote about the Iron Curtain). Though the detective calls himself Mr. Mycroft we never know if this is meant to be his first name or last name. He confesses that it is "only one of my many family names". But who else has retired to the south of England to become a beekeeper? It's all a little too convenient.

The story is not so much a true whodunit but there is much that is mysterious besides the identity of the detective. Sidney Silchester, the erudite, somewhat snobbish and slightly befogged narrator, apparently has never heard of Sherlock Holmes but he is more than eager to listen to the detective's colorful tale of the sinister next door neighbor from whom Silchester used to buy his honey. Seems Mrs. Heregrove, the neighbor's wife, has died from a bee sting and Mr. Mycroft is suspicious that it was not an accident but a gruesomely engineered murder.

And that is all I will reveal of the plot. You really need to read the book yourself to experience the full impact of story. What Heard does with this seemingly simple idea borders on genius. The writing is lush, a bit too fanciful for its own good, but Heard succeeds in transporting the reader to a world of unimaginable horror. The battle of wits between detective and murderer recalls the long gone days where heroic acts trumped villainy, where the unveiling of breathtaking adventures was the only reason for telling a tale of mystery. This is one forgotten book that should never be forgotten. I'd add that it never will be forgotten by anyone who reads it.

Luckily, A Taste for Honey was such a huge success in its time and became something of a cult phenomenon in mystery fiction that is has been reprinted multiple times since its original publication back in 1941. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of paperback copies of this little masterpiece offered for sale in the used book market. I'm sure there must be an electronic version by now, too. Go find one and read it...or else!

8 comments:

  1. Well, I have just obtained the book !

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have finished the book. I enjoyed reading it though it is slightly padded.Lot of scientific stuff.
    It is in no way a whodunit. The culprit is known early. It is actually an adventure/ suspense thriller concerned with "how to stop the culprit".
    Though Mycroft's identity is not explicitly mentioned in the book, it should be obvious to the reader !
    I have also seen the 1955 TV adaptation Sting Of Death (The Elgin Hour season1, episode11). It is more or less a faithful adaptation with Boris Karloff as Mycroft. It is in public domain and available on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QChOFJHdQps

    ReplyDelete
  3. There was also a poor movie adaption "The Deadly Bees" from Amicus & adapted by Robert Bloch that made Mycroft the villain of the piece! It starred Frank Finlay, the Inspector Lestrade of " A Study in Terror" &" Murder by Decree"

    ReplyDelete
  4. How does this one compare with Heard's 1949 offering, The Notched Hairpin, which also concerns Mr. Mycroft? I have paperback copies of both, and you have convinced me to pull them out of the TBR files.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Notched Hairpin is the second best of these Mr Mycroft books. But Mycroft solves the ambiguous crime very swiftly and the villain is confronted as soon as he meets him. The novel reminded me of SIGN OF FOUR and VALLEY OF FEAR in that the bulk of the book is an explanation of the crime and what led up to it told from the villain's point of view. The best of the three books is TASTE FOR HONEY. Both HAIRPIN and HONEY are basically inverted crime novels as Santosh has already mentioned (something I purposely avoided in my review). The unusual structure of both books in no way spoils enjoyment of a suspenseful rather clever and very different mystery novel.

      The second book in the trio (REPLY PAID) is rather dull in comparison, I think. Heard was fascinated with the American Southwest and set two books there. REPLY PAID is inundated with descriptions of the topography, climate and indigenous wildlife of American desert landscape. On the plus side REPLY PAID is the closest to a true detective novel.

      Delete
  5. Sounds intriguing, John. Mr. Mycroft. Hmmmm. Maybe it's Sherlock's brother who has suddenly turned to bee-keeping? But, at any rate, when you're so enthusiastic about a book, I pay attention.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Only ever saw the movie adaptation by Robert Bloch (with which he was very disappointed) - great review John. I actually thought I had this one but can't seem to find it, so off to Abe books I go ...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for the recommendation, I enjoyed this book. The overwhelming sense of padding towards the finale was countered by an equally strong feeling that this build-up is most functional with regard to the philosophical layer. By the way, in the edition I read (Penguin, 1961) the good apiarist is named Mr. Bowcross. In the end he gives his full name, which "was once pretty widely known." The narrator didn't know it, and forgets it, only remembering that "it was something not unlike Bowcross – Bowcross and then another word, a short one, I think." The excuse is rather weak, but the implications are much more interesting. They are simply blocked off by the obvious 'Mr. Mycroft'. Sydney Silchester's forgetfulness makes it possible to see Mr. Bowcross as a manifestation of either Sherlock Holmes or Jesus Christ. This fits well with the story's mildly supernatural atmosphere and its metaphysical underpinnings. It would also make the book the complement of what I believe to be its model: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, who himself, like Silchester, was an exemplar of free will.

    I suppose that Bowcross was the original name, and that it was used until it was decided that the character would reappear in subsequent novels. To avoid the mockery of a Third Coming, a Fourth, and God knows how many more Comings the name was changed to one that only referred to the character that returned more often than once to do good works. The gain of a series meant the loss of a significant name. And I guess that once it became clear that the series would be limited to three books, and that only the first would be published by Penguin, Heard thought it best to return to the original name and allow the novel to have its full impact.

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.