From Robert Downey Jr.’s period, pulp-action hero to Benedict Cumberbatch’s autism-spectrum, modern genius to Hugh Laurie’s narcissistic Dr. House to Vincent D’Onofrio’s troubled Detective Robert Goren, we’ve seen nearly every conceivable iteration of the Great Detective. What may surprise you, however, is that the first serious, novel-length Holmes pastiche would also later start the killer bee genre of horror films.
In 1941, Gerald Heard published A Taste For Honey under the name H. F. Heard. This short novel introduces us to Sidney Silchester, a resident of a quiet, English village and a reclusive bachelor with a particular fondness for honey. Silchester regularly purchases his sweet treat from the squabbling Heregroves. When Mrs. Heregrove is stung to death and her husband is ordered to destroy his hives, Silchester eyes his dwindling supply with concern, unsure of where he can obtain more. Shortly after, while walking around the village one day, he chances upon a small notice poking through a hedge:
“The Proprietor has at present a certain amount of surplus honey of which he would be willing to dispose.”
Silchester thinks it’s his lucky day. Happily, he continues down the lane and meets with a man who calls himself Mr. Mycroft. His excitement is short-lived however when the old beekeeper explains that Mrs. Heregrove’s death was murder and not an accident. Mr. Heregrove, he explains, has trained his bees to kill!
It sounds like a pulpy and cheesy premise but the novel is neither. A Taste For Honey is well-paced, very tense, and, at times, very scary. And what’s especially intriguing is that it isn’t a novel about solving a mystery in the traditional sense. When Sidney comes calling about honey and instead learns about murder, Mycroft makes it clear that Heregrove is the guilty party. The crime has already been solved. Any doubts that either Silchester or the audience have about Mycroft’s deductions are quickly dispelled. Heard isn’t presenting us with a whodunit, rather he’s giving us a tight, suspense thriller that’s concerned with why-do-it and how-do-we-stop-it. And that’s really the strength of the book.
Honey never states outright whether Mr. Mycroft is Holmes or not. I’ve seen Heard’s book referenced as being about Holmes’s brother Mycroft. However, from the text, the old beekeeper’s identity is clear. Besides the choice of pseudonym, there’s the character’s fit build, his manner and bearing, his choice of retirement occupation, and his search for someone new to fulfill a Watson-style role:
Indeed, when I was working, I often found that it helped to talk over a problem with an interested if less absorbed mind. Some steps of reasoning can be run through and checked more quickly in speech than by writing them down, and often the listener, however inexpert, will see a slip oneself has overlooked.
Several lines tossed off by Mr. Mycroft through the novel serve as further clues that this is not Sherlock’s brother, “I have had the opportunity of studying toxicology for some years” or “I know more of bad men than bees.” Further, Heard’s Mr. Mycroft doesn’t operate like Doyle’s Mycroft. He investigates Heregrove on his own, survives a bee attack, then lures Silchester into being his new Watson so he can also make use of the stubborn egotist in his plan to counter the villain’s murderous schemes.
Today, we tend to think of Mycroft Holmes as a spy actively working for British Intelligence, but that’s all an invention of later writers following Billy Wilder’s interpretation of the character in his script for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s Mycroft is a very different character. Only four stories deal with him and even then he only actually appears in two. The character portrait we can construct from “The Adventure of The Greek Interpreter,” “The Final Problem,” “The Empty House,” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” is of a tall, stout man who possesses keen powers of reasoning and an almost superhuman ability to remember facts but is so completely and utterly lazy he can’t even be bothered to exercise the barest minimum of effort to confirm that he is correct. This is not the character presented in A Taste For Honey.
Heard’s book was first adapted for television in 1955. With a few minor changes it aired on The Elgin Hour as “Sting of Death” and featured Boris Karloff in the role of Mr. Mycroft. Then in 1966, Amicus, Hammer Films’ rival, adapted it for a second time. The original script was written by Robert Bloch, kept the novel’s title, and was specifically structured by Bloch to showcase Boris Karloff, reprising his role as Mr. Mycroft, opposite Christopher Lee.
Unfortunately for Bloch, this proved to be yet another screenwriting disappointment. Schedules and salaries prohibited both horror legends. Amicus decided they wanted the Mycroft character removed completely and Silchester replaced by someone altogether more modern. Then Freddie Francis was hired to direct and Anthony Marriott was brought in to rewrite Bloch’s screenplay.
The result was The Deadly Bees. By removing the two main characters from the novel and focusing on a 60’s era pop star suffering from exhaustion, it’s a film that was quickly and painfully dated. Thanks to some poor special effects, it would also later earn the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment. Still, despite its flaws and its differences, The Deadly Bees precedes Hollywood’s spat of killer bee films by nearly a decade. If nothing else, it’s certainly good for a laugh.
Luckily, for readers, the literary Mr. Mycroft and Silchester returned for two additional outings. 1942’s Reply Paid features a secret code and a race against time, making this a much more exciting entry. And 1949’s The Notched Hairpin finds the pair living as flat mates and out to prove that an apparent suicide was in fact a murder. All equally worth checking out and all available in new reprints.
Chad Eagleton is a hardboiled writer and unrepentant leftist working on the style of his soul. His work is available in print, eBook, and free online. Most recently, he edited the anthology Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats featuring an introduction from counterculture legend Mick Farren. An obsessive Shane Stevens fan, he’s currently finishing complete a biographical portrait of this tragically forgotten master.
Read all of Chad Eagleton's posts at Criminal Element.