I will remember the stuff about bees in The Singing Masons long after I've forgotten the plot and the human characters and the name of the author. This is not to say the murder mystery and the people and the writing were merely so-so. All were top-notch (to my admittedly less-than-sophisticated taste). The bees play a marquee role, and yet they’d not have had the chance to steal the show were it not for the honey trap promise of an intriguing human crime mystery. Were the book only about bees I doubtless never would know that half of them buzz off with a newly hatched queen to start a new colony, leaving the old gal to rule the half that stay behind with her in the original hive. It’s what they do.
It helps my suspension of disbelief in this work of fiction that a copy of The Singing Masons resides at Cornell University in “one of the largest and most complete apiculture libraries in the world,” and that Vivian was himself a dedicated beekeeper. This I learned also in the book’s Dean Street Press edition from its introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.
Vivian, born Arthur Ernest Ashley, was writing for newspapers and magazines when he began cranking out novels in 1937. Published in 1950, Singing Masons is the sixth of ten in a series featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Gordon Knollis. In Singing Masons, Knollis is brought in to assist Clevely Borough Inspector Wilson investigating the discovery of a month-long missing local lothario in an abandoned well hidden under a beehive. The list of suspects in this small community is not long: the victim’s fiancé, whom he had ditched a day before he disappeared, her lawyer father, a couple of his married sexual conquests, including a cousin who has slapped him publicly only days before he disappeared, and her husband. The usual motives are in play, including blackmail, money, and scandal—intertwined and separately. Thoroughly unlikable, he was, except evidently to certain women. The kind of jerk I just might have pushed alive into the well myself, especially knowing he had a cardboard container of calcium cyanide in his pocket that would release lethal gas when activated by water. Cyanide, I can note without spoiling any plot twists, he’d been planning to use on one of the suspects! Had I done so—pushed the blackguard into the well—presumably without the proverbial airtight alibi, local Inspector Wilson could easily have solved the mystery all by himself, as I would not have had the pluck to cover the well with an empty beehive. Then again, everyone except those who didn’t know bees knew the property’s recently deceased owner loathed bees.
Ah, “The bees! The bees!” as Nicolas Cage wailed in The Wicker Man. Singing masons, as Shakespeare called them in Henry V:
For so work the honey-bees. Creatures that, by a rule in nature, teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom. They have a king, and officers of sorts. Where some, like magistrates, correct at home, others, like merchants, venture trade abroad. Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings, make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds, which pillage they with merry march bring home to the tent-royal of their emperor, who, busied in his majesty, surveys the singing masons building roofs of gold. The civil citizens kneading up the honey. the poor mechanic porters crowding in their heavy burdens at his narrow gate. The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum delivering o’er to executors pale the lazy yawning drone.
Old Heatherington, the local bee guru, offers a more vivid, if less poetic description. Watching the bees at one of his hives reminds him, he tells us, “of a group of village women preparing for an annual outing from the chapel. Some trotted from the interior of the hive, seemed to chat with other bees, and hurried back indoors as if they’d forgotten something, or had a message to leave.
“Others wiped their faces as if dabbing a final touch of powder on a shiny spot. Others took off to circumnavigate the hive and land again with weather reports. All were waiting for the signal to leave their home and go out into the world to found a new colony, obeying the primal order that all living things shall endure, shall multiply, and endeavor to cover the earth.”
To me that is the greater mystery, of much more fascination than who killed the village cad and why. Puzzles can be fun for a little while, diverting the mind from the predictable of diurnal duties. But I’m retired from the harness, and my attention now wanders freely from frivolous precisions. I simply don’t care whether an alibi crumbles because the Sussex Bank clock said nine-oh-five when the suspect insists it said nine-thirty, or when the TV show he/she claims to have been watching when the dastardly deed was performed had been pre-empted by a public service announcement from Ten Downing Street. Or maybe I do care, a little, but let it slip past me in a narrative that distracts my eye like a sleighting hand hidng a card trick. And I do notice the obvious tricks, but feel cheated when it becomes obvious I was supposed to see the obvious trick that really has no bearing on the case. I possess the patience level of the jigsaw puzzle solver who snips a corner off an infuriating piece or hammers it with his fist to make it fit in the damnable space where it should but doesn’t belong. Mystery novels can do that to me. At some point I tire of the detecting, and just want to see some schmuck I’ve sort of suspected all along get what’s coming to him. Or her.
With Inspector Knollis, tho, I rather enjoyed watching him check this and check that, say this and that and some more of this as he worries himself and poor Inspector Wilson half to death inching his way incrementally toward the wrong suspect, until…
Here’s a fine example of what I’m trying to say, his theory of detection: “The facts of a murder case are like the lines of a poem or song—they make sense only if you get them in the right order.”
And this: “It was seldom Gordon Knollis evolved a theory early in the course of an investigation. His method was to seek a pattern in the events surrounding the murder, a pattern which suggested, if no more, the causal factors, and a pattern in which the murder was the focal point.
“The murder itself, despite its sensational nature, was not the vital factor in a case as Knollis saw it; rather was it the bubble in a swamp telling of long-repressed forces beneath the surface, the eruption telling of poisons circulating through the apparently healthy system, the molehill indicating the runs and tunnels hidden from the eye.”
In this case one might add, follow the bees.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]