Friday, October 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “A Taste for Honey”

H.F. Heard; Publisher: Blue Dolphin Publishing (September 2009, Originally Published in 1941 by The Vanguard Press, Inc.)
“I turned to see beside me a serene face, a sort of political Dante, if I may so put it and not seem high-brow.  It was cold, perhaps; or maybe it would be juster to say it was super-cooled, cooled by thought until the moods and passions which in most of us are liquid or even gaseous had become set and solid—a face which might care little for public opinion but much for its opinion of itself” (14-5).
Nowadays, it seems as if new Sherlock Holmes pastiches are coming out consistently, if not constantly.  The advent of e-books, and self-publishing, has certainly increased the amount of reading material on the market in general, not just in the mystery and Sherlock Holmes genres.  With that said, however, it is sometimes easy to forget just how very far back the tradition reaches.  According to Richard Lancelyn Green, in The Sherlock Holmes Letters, “The earliest pastiche is thought to be ‘My Evening with Sherlock Holmes,’ which appeared in the Speaker on 28 November 1891 and described a visit to Baker Street” (7).  Issues with copyright and the appropriation of the character of Sherlock Holmes have further complicated matters over the years, forcing some authors into new and innovative methods of representing the Great Detective.  H.F. Heard’s novel is a prime example of both an early Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and an inventive method of skirting around the character of Sherlock Holmes, without ever really addressing him directly.
H.F. Heard’s novel, A Taste for Honey, is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring a retired detective turned beekeeper, who goes by the name, “Mr. Mycroft.”  Other novels in the trilogy include: Reply Paid, and The Notched Hairpin.  In 1955, A Taste for Honey was adapted into a made-for-television movie called, “The Sting of Death,” which featured the iconic Boris Karloff in the role Mr. Mycroft.  Heard’s novel runs in the same vein as Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, in that the story never explicitly states or outright names the main detective character as Sherlock Holmes.  In Chabon’s novel, he is referred to only as “the old man,” and in Heard’s book, he is “Mr. Mycroft” (a name, which he eventually reveals to the narrator, is only one of his many “family names”).  But there are certainly enough clues in both stories for the reader to draw the intended conclusion, to find them at turns clever, touching, or even humorous.
A Taste for Honey is narrated by the exceedingly neurotic and mostly unlikeable Sydney Silchester, resident of the quiet village of Ashton Clearwater.  He is remarkably particular in his ways, ill-tempered, and anti-social in a way that makes Sherlock Holmes look positively chummy in his interactions in the canon.  As Silchester himself puts it, the whole mystery of the novel began: “…through my breaking my rule—the rule, as it happens, of all village life of the better-off, of ‘keeping myself to myself’” (6).  But the narrator is also an incurable honey-addict, and his quest for his preferred sweet leads him directly into the path of the villainous Heregroves, then to Mr. Mycroft, and then, finally, into a swarm of feral honeybees.  Silchester has no desire to ally himself with Mr. Mycroft (or with anyone, for that matter), but his survival depends upon finding a solution to the mystery of the murderous swarm, and the eccentric beekeeper is clearly his best chance at finding that answer.  It is not possible, even for the briefest of moments, to confuse Sydney Silchester with Dr. Watson.  The Doctor was constantly in awe of his friend; Silchester is, at best, confused and at worst, horrified by Mr. Mycroft.  Mr. Mycroft, in turn, seems to spend a copious (and occasionally tedious) amount of time simply assuring his new companion of his competency.
On that front, the beekeeper’s efforts seem to be mostly in vain.  At the end of the novel, when Mr. Mycroft reveals his “real” name (to which the reader is never privy) to Silchester, the man’s reaction is frankly underwhelming.  He says:
“’You see,’ I said, ‘now that I do know your real name, I have to own I have never heard of you before.’
“Then, I must own, he looked amazed—perhaps the only time I had seen him profoundly surprised, and he turned away without a word” (141).
Mr. Mycroft is, naturally, the great mystery of Heard’s novel.  While he is clearly intended to stand in the stead of Sherlock Holmes, and the similarities are obvious and numerous, the characters are not perfect parallels.  Occasionally, there are aberrations in Mr. Mycroft’s character that seem possibly jarring and discordant to those who know the Great Detective well.  For example, Mr. Mycroft demonstrates an appreciation for fine cuisine that seems better suited as a characteristic of another Holmes relation (comparisons further strengthened by the conspicuousness of the character name).  According to Silchester, “The [food] was as good to my eye as to my ear and even better on the tongue.  My host knew about food and wine.  He talked both, well and fully, as if he wouldn’t touch on shop at mealtimes” (25).  But Mr. Mycroft has endless wells of energy, a brain that turns endlessly, and a manner of interacting with people that seems equal turns calculating and charming.  And—as the reader learns—Mr. Mycroft has absolutely no problem with being both judge and jury when the situation sees fit, and the novel's climax rings familiar in a way that will probably bring to mind the concluding scene of "The Abbey Grange."
In his essay, “Who Is Mr. Mycroft?” John Roger Barrie discusses the various theories and possible identities of Mr. Mycroft, their pertinence to Heard’s novel, and applicability to Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in general:
“…by utilizing powers of deductive reasoning that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame, we are now able conclusively to state with absolute and unequivocal certainty the answer to our question, who is Mr. Mycroft.  Add 1 ¾ cups Sherlock, a dash of Mycroft Holmes, 5 ounces of Heard, ½ cup archetypal investigator, 3 tablespoons quintessential justice seeker, and voila.  The true identity of Mr. Mycroft is, and will forever remain…Mr. Mycroft.”
And that’s the crux of it, I think—can the reader find Sherlock Holmes in the weeds?  Is he identifiable in the morass of original characters?  Can he be found among features that seem incongruous or incompatible?  H.F. Heard’s “Mr. Mycroft” is not a perfect parallel to the Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material, but he is recognizable in A Taste for Honey nonetheless; Sherlock Holmes is indeed detectable in his original shape.  And when Mr. Mycroft speaks, the reader knows his voice, even if his profile no longer stands in sharp relief.
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  1. Thanks for the review! It sounds interesting--I'll have to check the library for this.

  2. Simply excellent! What a fascinating review of an early pastiche AND of a specific technique of suggesting Holmes' character without specifically naming him--as if he were a silhouette overlay that nearly matched. You make an excellent case, in this piece and in your blog archive as a whole, for the distinctive features of Holmes that make him so recognizable and yet so transferrable.

  3. @Marian: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it. I've been trying to track down the two other "Mr. Mycroft" pastiches, but so far they seem a bit trickier to locate.

    @Lucy: Thank you so much! I think what's really interesting (and excellent) about Heard's novel is how often he dances right up to the edge of nearly explicitly stating that "Mr. Mycroft" is Sherlock Holmes, but then he throws in a seemingly random characteristic that causes the reader to back away from that conclusion. This is probably the main way in which Heard's pastiche differs from Chabon's. Chabon made the conclusion obvious from the beginning, and he never backed down (but his clues are really subtle and clever and lovely).

  4. Thanks for this! I will use this as my next book to read.

  5. Another excellent pos. I'd never heard of this pastiche. Your passion for Holmes in truly amazing, Jaime.

  6. @virtualight: Thank you so much! The blog has gotten a bit off schedule because of my new job, but it remains one of my favorite things. :-)