Some have compared “Telling the Bees,” Peggy Hesketh’sfirst, stately and beautiful novel to “The Remains of the Day,” but to my mind it compares to the best of Elmore Leonard. There are murders here but much more than that: a series of glimpses into an entirely different and closed place. Just as Leonard might delight in giving us the world of bootleg liquor or undertakers, Hesketh presents us with the world of bees and beekeeping. Only a superhuman reader will be able to resist foraging through the house looking for that half-eaten jar of honey. We have mostly forgotten, but it is a magic elixir.
Albert Honig, unmarried and in his 80s, has lived his entire life in thrall to bees. He’s still in his modest childhood home in what used to be paradise, that part of Southern California more or less equidistant from Los Angeles and San Diego. Now a land of tract houses and chain stores, it used to be quilted with orange, walnut and almond groves, delineated by endless windbreakers of eucalyptus and hedgerows of honeysuckle, and with only the occasional workman’s cottage dotting the fragrant landscape. Young Albert’s father ordered his bungalow from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue; their only neighbors are the Straussmans: a dour father, rarely seen; a cranky old bat of a mother as big as a blimp; and two daughters about Albert’s age. Hilda is a ponderous girl who seems determined to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and Claire is a clever, slender slip of a girl whose acerbic side conceals a strong need to be loved.
As for Albert’s family, his father is a taciturn beekeeper, as was his father before him. His mother, a modest and seemly homemaker, is affectionate and kind. His sister Albert ignores, largely because she has never been bitten by “bee fever,” which every other member of the family has succumbed to.
Albert grows up to be a recluse. His world consists of his family, the books that he checks out of the public library, his beloved bees and, of course, Claire, whom he adores while insisting all through their long lives that they’ve never been more than friends.
Albert’s conversational companions are for the most part his bees, and it is they who direct him one awful morning to go next door and see if his old beekeeping neighbors, Hilda and Claire, are all right. They’re dead — murdered — lying on the living room floor facing each other, with two delicate cups of company china filled with cold tea on their kitchen table.
Detective Grayson shows up to investigate the case, which is seemingly without a clue. The sisters have lived an austere life, never marrying, never showing the slightest inclination to acquire worldly goods. The detective questions Albert closely and is met by an incredible compendium of bee lore and scholarship that goes back to the ancient philosophers, an intricate web of half-truths and every so often a downright whopping lie, even as he assures the cop that he values truth just as much as he values his bees.
The classics have long infused his life. One of the stories he tells is about Claire when they were both young. She invited him out into their orange grove, dangerously close to a nearby dance hall, so that he could see, and touch, a white satin gown she found in the attic. Albert remembers, “I declined her invitation with all due respect. I believed I conveyed as best I could my desire to return to my house earlier than was my custom, telling Claire that I wished to complete my reading of Plato’s ‘Symposium’ that evening before I retired. I then detailed my systematic plan for reading what I considered to be the fundamental pillars of Western thought. ‘After Plato, I plan to tackle Aristotle, Horace, and of course Saint Augustine,’ I said.”
Albert never mentions his loneliness until the last few pages and then only indirectly. He speaks of the sadness of dying alone and unmourned, and indeed the novel’s title comes from an ancient ritual, “telling the bees”; while rapping on their hives to command their attention and laying out sweets to take away the bitter taste of death, you tell them calmly that their mistress (or master) is dead. Only in that way will they keep on producing honey and living their orderly, contented lives.
If Albert sounds unbelievable, I can vouch that such oppressed, tender, loving scholars exist. And in addition to the murder-mystery part of this narrative, the bees add another entirely sweet layer of plot and character. I have only one troubling question: What happened to the Bee Ladies’ bees after their murder? Albert doesn’t take care of them. That bothered me as I waited for some toast to crisp so that I could slather it with orange-blossom honey.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
TELLING THE BEES
By Peggy Hesketh
Putnam. 307 pp. $26.95