Yes 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…