The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Yellowjackets, Wasps and Other Stingers

Yellowjackets, wasps and other stingersYes indeed, the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is almost at the end of our treacherous trek through the alphabet. All credit to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and safe – no mean feat when you go to the places we’ve been thus far. Today we are making a stop at the Yellow Harvest bee and honey farm in beautiful Surrey, and we’re all pleased about it. Imagine – delicious fresh honey! The others are trying to decide how much space there is in their luggage for a few jars, but I’m having mine shipped. So now is a good time to share my contribution for this week: yellowjackets, wasps and other stingers.

Bees are a critical part of the ecosystem and of course, there’s nothing like fresh honey in tea or on toast. But stinging insects like that can be awfully, awfully dangerous. That’s especially true if one’s allergic to the little critters. So it is important to bee on your guard when you’re around a nice clover patch.  Just a quick look at crime fiction should convince you.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to spend time on Indian Island off the Devon coast. For various reasons, each accepts the invitation. After dinner on their first evening, everyone is shocked when each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long after that accusation, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. There’s another death during the night. It’s soon clear that everyone has been lured to the island by someone who’s trying to kill them. Now the guests have to find out who the murderer is and still stay alive themselves. One of the guests is Emily Brent, who is accused of having caused the death of a former maid Beatrice Taylor. Late one morning Miss Brent is found dead of what looks like a bee sting at first. There’s even a bee on the window pane. Technically, the murder weapon is poison, but the killer seems to be following the old nursery rhyme:

 

‘Six little Indian boys playing with a hive.
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.’

 

Christie uses a wasp as a ‘decoy’ in a sort of similar way in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air).

Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil is the story of Tamsin and Patrick Selby, who live in the rather cliquish suburban community of Linchester. They decide to host an outdoor party to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday, and they invite several of their friends as well as several of the other residents of the community. The party goes well until a group of wasps begins to annoy the guests. Patrick climbs a ladder to find and get rid of the wasp nest, but he is badly stung in the process. He becomes very ill and a few days later, he dies. At first Dr. Max Greenleaf, who was caring for Patrick, thinks that his death was caused by a severe reaction to the stings he got. But soon Greenleaf begins to suspect that Patrick was murdered. So very reluctantly he starts asking questions. As he does, we learn that there are several layers to life in Linchester, and that more than one person had something to hide.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese, we meet Aubrey Scotten, a beekeeper who lives near the small town of Pickax. He gets mixed up in a terrible case of destruction of property and murder when a bomb goes off at the local hotel, killing a chambermaid Anna Marie Toms. Soon enough it’s determined that the bomb was brought to the hotel in the guise of a flower delivery to a mysterious woman who’s been staying at the hotel. As luck would have it, she wasn’t there at the time of the blast, and when she hears about what happened she disappears. The only clues that the police can get point to Aubrey Scotten Newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is fairly sure that Scotten isn’t a killer, but the man obviously knows more than he is saying. So Qwill befriends him and finds out that his instincts were right. In the end, Qwill finds out who planned the bombing and why, and who the mysterious woman at the hotel is. In this case, beestings aren’t the method of murder in the ‘main’ case, but they play a very important role in what happens in the story.

And then there’s Inger Ash Wolfe’s A Door in the River. In that novel, Inspector Hazel Micallef of the Port Dundas, Ontario police is having a ‘photo taken with her mother Emily when a telephone call interrupts them. Hardware store owner Henry Wiest has died in the parking lot of a smoke shop on the Reserve. His death is put down to heart failure due to an extreme allergic reaction to a bee sting. All of the medical evidence supports an accidental death. But Micallef isn’t so sure. For one thing, the death occurred late at night, so why was Wiest at the smoke shop at that time? What’s more, he didn’t smoke. And, interestingly enough, the police evidence doesn’t show that a stinger was ever found. So Micallef decides to investigate this matter a little further. Then, Henry’s wife is attacked. And two more deaths follow. Now it’s clear that this is much more than a case of death by bee sting…

In Kathleen Hills’ Past Imperfect, the small town of St. Adele, Michigan is rocked when fisherman Nels Bertelsen is found dead in his boat one morning. All of the signs point to death by an extreme allergic reaction to a bee sting. That explanation makes sense too. Everyone knew that Bertelsen was violently allergic to bees. In fact, that’s part of why he’d made the move from his family’s farming business to fishing. There’s even a dead bee as evidence. But the case isn’t as clear cut as that, and local constable John McIntire soon begins to wonder what really happened. In order to find out the truth, he’s going to have to look into Bertelsen’s history to find out who wanted him dead badly enough to expose him to a bee, and to find out how it happened.

There’s also of course Rebecca Tope’s The Sting of Death, in which DS Den Cooper and eccentric undertaker Drew Slocombe investigate the disappearance of Justine Pereira, a distant relation of Slocombe’s. Justine isn’t killed by bees, but the investigation into her disappearance brings up a great number of family secrets and leads to more than one death. And one of the main characters in this novel is Roma Millan, a local beekeeper and Justine’s aunt. Roma is a fascinating character and as it turns out, her brother Conrad was fatally stung by bees when he was very small. It’s had a lot to do with the way Roma is, and it adds an interesting layer to her character.

See what I mean? Bees, wasps and the like may be important to the ecosystem but they can be very hazardous to your health. Now, ready for that trip to the bee farm? They’re going to let us observe the hives… ;-)

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Inger Ash Wolfe, Kathleen Hills, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rebecca Tope, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Yellowjackets, Wasps and Other Stingers

  1. I hate bee stings, they hurt :)

  2. You’re stumping me here! The only two I could think of were the Rendell, and Death in the Air… I’m very impressed you came up with so many for such a very specific subject.

    • Moira – Thank you. You know what’s interesting is that I read somewhere that there aren’t a lot of novels where stings play major roles in the stores. Leaves the field quite open for a crime writer actually.

  3. I got a real buzz out of this post ;-)

  4. Margot: Officially bee farms are apiaries. I grew up on one though we rarely used the formal word.

    My only mystery reading connection with bees is Laurie R. King featuring Sherlock Holmes as a beekeeper in her series with Holmes and Mary Russell. Indeed, King titles one of the books – The Language of Bees.

    • Bill – I didn’t know you’d grown up on an apiary. Fascinating!! And thanks for reminding me of King’s Holmes/Russell books. That’s an interesting series.

  5. Strangely enough I would love to keep bees. I think they’re beautiful. They’re also immensely ecologically important and it makes me chuckle when I see people running round squealing when one comes near them. They don’t just land on people and sting for the fun of it.

    Wasps on the other hand. Horrible little critters.

    • Rebecca – Bees really are extremely ecologically important. And it’s funny you’d mention wasps in that way. In Rebecca Tope’s Th eSting of Death, the beekeeper Roma Millan is, of course, always on the side of bees against wasps. There’s one scene in the novel in which there’s a fight between some bees and some wasps, and she goes after the wasps just as the bees do.

  6. I’m like Rebecca. Yay for the bees, pooh on the wasps.

    I’ve got a friend, Hannah Reed, who has a cozy mystery series featuring a beekeeper (Queen Bee series). It’s a lot of fun.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you for reminding me of Hannah Reed’s series. I knew it was out there, but just didn’t think of it when I was writing this post. Shame on me. And I agree, we need bees. I’m not sure why we need wasps…

  7. kathy d.

    Ironically, there were no stings in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, not even hornets.

    • Kathy – No, that is interesting isn’t it? I suppose the use of the term hornet’s nest in the title was metaphorical (i.e. the girl who stirred up a lot of trouble).

  8. Love THE BEE KEEPER’S APPRENTICE of course. And there are quite a few mainstream novels about bees I have enjoyed.

  9. The only one I thought of was Laurie R. King’s series, which has already been mentioned. But you have gotten me interested in Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil. I usually don’t read her stand-alone books but that one sounds interesting.

    • Tracy – In my opinion, To Fear a Painted Devil is a terrific psychological suspense novel. The murder makes sense when you know the characters and it’s a strong commentary on suburban life and the ‘secrets of suburbia’ too.

  10. Col

    I can dimly recall reading Banks The Wasp Factory but memory fails me after that. How relevant the title was to the book escapes me…help!

    • Col – The Wasp Factory is a strange sort of story really. But it has a lot more to do with psychology and weird ritual murder than it does with death by wasp/bee sting. I have to admit, it wasn’t my sort of book.

  11. I’m allergic to wasps so they’re my least favourite critter. I like the reference to wasps and blowpipes in Death in the Clouds though!

    • Sarah – I like that too. It’s quite cleverly done I think. And I’m not much of a fan of wasps either. Bees I understand. After all, they are necessary for the ecosystem. I give them wide berth, but they’re fine. Wasps on the other hand? No, thanks.

  12. One of the most unusual plots involving bees, wasps and hornets is found in Edmund Crispin’s “Holy Disorders,” in which an assortment of those stinging (and VERY angry) insects, imprisoned within a clothes closet, effectively save the life of Crispin’s detective, Gervase Fen. I don’t want to say more – it’s Crispin, after all, which means both wildly funny and wildly horrifying, usually at the same time, but it’s a memorable scene and absolutely critical to the plot.

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