Sunday, June 19, 2022

A Taste for Honey, by H.F. Heard

Penzler Publishers, American Mystery Classics, 2019
originally published 1941
197  pp


Still following the séptimo circulo list, up next after Night Over Fitch's Pond comes H.F. Heard's A Taste for Honey (#25),  published in 1941 and reprinted in 2019 via Penzler Publishers' American Mystery Classics series.    The book was made into a 1966 film called The Deadly Bees, but more on that later.  

Last week my insomnia flared up again and I grabbed this book  hoping I'd read until drifting off.  The complete opposite happened -- once I started it I couldn't stop.  It wasn't because it's a great book, but more because what happens here was so far out of the range of most mystery/crime novels of the period and so completely unexpected that I knew there would be no sleep that night.    The story is related by Mr. Sydney Silchester, a reclusive  sort of fellow who had come to a small village in the countryside for peace and quiet. He lives under a self-made rule of "keeping myself to myself," wanting to be "left alone, at peace," preferring his own company to that of others.   Evidently something has happened to shatter his solitude and he feels the need to "set it all down" so that his record (narrated retrospectively), will let people know that he had very little blame in the matter, the whole thing having been "forced" upon him.  What follows is not exactly a mystery but a sort of bizarre story that borders on pulpy horror (not the supernatural type but more like a sort of mad-scientist adventure caper), and while there is some  detection involved here,  this is by no means a whodunit.   And it all begins with Silchester's fondness for honey, which he buys regularly from a certain Mr. Heregrove, the local village apiarist.   At one point Silchester discovers that he's running low on the stuff, and while considering his next visit to the Heregrove's farm, he learns from his house cleaner that Mrs. Heregrove had met an untimely end after being stung to death by her husband's bees.  Though the coroner's inquest arrives at a verdict of accidental death, Heregrove has been ordered to destroy his hives, which leaves Silchester without a supplier.  Not keen on asking around the village due to his "dread of business dealings" that might lead to "social entanglements," he finds himself in luck one day while out on a long walk, when he happens upon a sign advertising "a certain amount of honey" for sale.   Happy to find a new supplier,   he goes on to meet the man who posted it, a certain Mr. Mycroft, who, along with the honey, also provides him with an interesting theory.   As the back-cover blurb says, Mr. Mycroft "senses the bloody hand of murder,"  meaning that he believes that Mrs. Heregrove's death was not an accident at all.   That will be it for plot, I'm afraid, because there is no way that I'm going to ruin the show for potential readers.  

Despite some testing of my patience with Silchester and Mycroft because of their often lengthy expositions on various topics,  I had great fun with this novel.   I have to seriously offer a tip of my hat to the author on even coming up with this crazy plot, which had it not been for Mycroft's habit to  (and pardon the pun) drone on and on, might have made for better reading.  On the other hand, the nature of the villainy revealed here allows for the author to discourse about the limitations of the law which, in this case, leaves these two men no alternative but to handle things themselves.    As Mycroft notes,
"The law protects us from the sudden, unpremeditated violence of the untamed blackguard. It is helpless against the calculating malice of a man who patiently and deliberately studies to get around its limitations  When you have really faced up to the fact ... that the law, the magistrate and the village policeman are helpless to protect you, then you will be free to consider the unavoidability of step two of doing what we can do."
The situation comes down to a battle of the minds, with uncountable lives at stake if things go wrong.

 I should warn potential readers to leave the introduction for last as Otto Penzler reveals "one of the surprises in this book" in his assumption that "the secret has been revealed often enough that few readers will be astounded."  I suppose he never thought that perhaps there are still some readers like me who have neither read this book nor discussed it with anyone before, so that's certainly a big oopsie on his part.   And as to that secret, well, it's not hard to figure it out pretty much right away with all of the clues offered by the author. Trust me, that's the least concern in this novel.  Also, if you are one of those readers who must find something likeable or relatable about the characters, it's very likely you won't find it here.  All in all it was a fun read, not perfect by any means, but still very much worth the time.  

movie poster, from filmaffinity

As to that movie (an Amicus production) I mentioned earlier, the original screenplay was written by Robert Bloch,  but the director of the film, Freddie Francis, evidently didn't like it and along with Anthony Marriott, decided to change it.  That's a shame really, and according to the B&S About Movies blog, Bloch never saw the film but did say that Deadly Bees "buzzed off into critical oblivion, unwept, unhonoured and unstung."   It would probably appeal only to true-blue diehard connoisseurs of old horror films because it was pretty bad, with the plot centering around a pop singer who has gone to Heregrove's farm for a rest after fainting from exhaustion during a television performance.  The roles are actually flipped in this film, with Mr. Mycroft (still painfully expository) as the bad guy.    I couldn't actually lay hands on a copy to watch but I did find an MST3K (of which I've been a huge fan for eons) episode on youtube which didn't actually quite deaden the pain; even the sarcastic bot banter couldn't save the experience. 

MST3K version, my photo

I  also watched an episode of the Elgin Hour, "Sting of Death" (1955), which stars Boris Karloff and hews much closer to the novel than the later 1966 film.  This one is worth the watch, although  the scope is rather limited, I suppose,  due to the allotted television time. It also won the Edgar Award for best TV episode in a series in 1956.  


Boris Karloff as Mr. Mycroft

Bottom line: book fun, movie bad; book recommended just because it's so very different and strange, movie is definitely skippable unless you are a masochist.  

Friday, June 3, 2022

Night Over Fitch's Pond, by Cora Jarrett


Houghton Mifflin Company, Riverside Press, 1933
292 pp

"There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog." 

Night Over Fitch's Pond is number 24 on the Borges/Bioy list of mystery novels, and it is my introduction to author Cora Jarrett (1877-1969).  As a brief aside, I did read number 23, ECR Lorac's Black Beadle (1939), but it was a long while ago, I didn't really care for it all that much, and I was well behind reading schedule so I didn't post about it.  Oh well.  Things are FINALLY settling here at home (after what, two-plus years?)  so I'll just be moving on.   

One particular thing I'm enjoying about going through the Borges/Bioy list of books is that  it affords me the opportunity to read novels I have never read before, and in this case, an author I'd not heard of before starting this project.   Cora Hardy was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and after studying at Bryn Mawr, The Sorbonne and Oxford,  she entered into what would become a lengthy teaching career and married Edmund Seton Jarrett in 1906.   According to a blurb about her book The Ginkgo Tree at Abebooks, she "began writing in her 50s,"  with Night Over Fitch's Pond  her first novel.  She would go on to write five more novels, a number of short stories and a play, and as Barrie Hayne notes in Reilly's Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers , Jarrett's books are "deep probings into abnormal psychology" (Springer, 2015; 858), which is very likely one reason I liked Night Over Fitch's Pond as much as I did.  

The novel begins as our narrator, Walter Drake, sits by the body of Julius Nettleton in a cottage on Fitch's Pond, "a small solitary lake of great beauty."  Reflecting back on events that led to Julius' death, his mind replays what had happened over that particular summer, looking for any kind of clues as to what might have happened out on the lake that caused Julius to die.   

Julius and Mary Nettleton had first come to Fitch's Pond to visit their son George at a camp on the lake owned and run by a man named Maxon. They had discovered two abandoned cottages there, and Julius bought them both -- one for his family and one to be rented out.   Later, after the Nettletons had spent four summers on the lake, Julius had invited Walter to spend his summer at Fitch's Pond as a guest in their cabin.  Walter soon realizes that the Nettletons are no ordinary couple -- Julius, as he notes, wanted Mary to be  "a housemate only, a housekeeper, a serviceable kind of companion," while Mary had decided to "bear with humors of Julius."  Life at the Nettletons, both at home and at the lake, it seems, is built around what "Julius will want..." with Mary acceding to his wishes despite what she might want.  Walter, it seems, is also secretly in love with Mary but doesn't understand why she caves in so easily to what her husband wants.   

The real trouble begins when new tenants, Rolf and Eloise Deming,  move into the second cottage.  On first meeting Eloise, Drake comes to the conclusion (eventually proving correct) that Eloise would "go over the lot of us like a steam-roller," and secretly hopes that Julius would "get his proper come-uppance from this woman he had brought among us." He also realizes  that it would be Mary who "would pay," also a spot-on insight, especially when it hits him that Mary and Rolf had quietly fallen for each other and that Eloise knows.  Drake goes on to describe a  campaign of mental tortures inflicted on Mary by Eloise  taking readers to that "one fatal evening," which had "brought our whole precarious cardhouse of outward appearance at Fitch's Pond slithering and toppling down."   "Abnormal psychology" indeed -- there's a reason why Eloise is referred to as "an Iago in petticoats," but the one really deserving reader scrutiny here is Julius, as Drake spends that long night "laboring to plumb ... the bottomless dark" of his mind.  

While reading, my thoughts often came back to a  passage I'd marked earlier in the novel where Drake is told by a friend that 
There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog," 
 and without giving anything away, all I will say is that there is much more than a kernel of truth in that statement, played out right up until the end.  To say much else would be criminal; in the long run, while Night Over Fitch's Pond  may not be a typical mystery story,  after the first few slow-ish chapters, I couldn't put it down.  The truth is that I enjoyed it so very much that I bought a copy of Jarrett's Pattern in Red and Black (1934; Coachwhip, 2017)  written under her alias Faraday Keene.  This character-driven story may not be for everyone, but there's just something about the deep delve into people's dark psyches  that appealed to me.  

Recommended, mainly to readers of older mysteries, as well as to people who, like myself, are always on the lookout for something different and who love finding the writings of authors whose works have pretty much faded away into obscurity.