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Telling the Bees

Peggy Hesketh crafts a gorgeously written debut mystery.

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Telling the Bees,
by Peggy Hesketh,
Penguin Group,
320 pp.

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A gentle octogenarian reflects on the ways he failed his dearest friend in Peggy Hesketh’s elegantly crafted debut mystery, Telling the Bees.

Beekeeper Albert Honig was finishing breakfast when he heard the bees along the utility wires. Following the agitated noise to his estranged neighbors’ house, he found the Bee Ladies, Claire and Hilda Straussman, bound and dead on the floor and bees swarming down their chimney.

Once the closest person to Albert on earth, he and Claire hadn’t spoken in the 10 years before her death.

“Telling the Bees” is an elegiac, contemplative mystery that has sparked comparisons with literary heavyweights such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Man Booker Prize-winner “The Remains of the Day” and Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead.”  

If anything, Albert has even less awareness of his fellow beings than the repressed butler in “Remains of the Day," so consumed is he with his books and his bees.

“Though I have lived my entire life within five miles of the Pacific Ocean, as the crow flies, I have yet to see it firsthand,” Albert says in one of the most melancholy sentences of the book. “Looking back now, I think I might have enjoyed the view.”

“Telling the Bees” is more than nominally a mystery, but Hesketh is also conducting an exploration into a now-vanished southern California world of almond, citrus, and walnut groves, where people knew their neighbors, but politeness meant not disturbing the surface to see the horror underneath.

After the murders, Albert finds himself haunted by a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “‘The cruelest lies are often told in silence.’... And kept in darkness, I should like to add.”

The investigation is headed up by the highly competent, sardonic Detective Grayson, who musters a startling amount of patience in the face of Albert’s arcane facts about apiaries. More than dithering, Albert uses his tangents to conceal facts about the Straussmans in an effort to protect the reputation of the dead.

Not having a double murder to solve, this reader couldn’t get enough of the mixture of folklore and science. The title comes from the folk custom of “telling the bees” when their keeper has died. In a sign of how out of joint the time has become, no one tells the Bee Ladies’ hives that their mistress is gone.

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