One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes
By J. Lawrence Matthews
Publication Date: 22nd May 2021
Publisher: East Dean Press
Page Length: 490 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Historical Mystery
“President Lincoln is assassinated in his private box at Ford’s!”
When those harrowing words ring out during a children’s entertainment in Washington on the evening of April 14, 1865, a quick-thinking young chemist from England named Johnnie Holmes grabs the 12-year-old son of the dying President, races the boy to safety, and soon finds himself enlisted in the most infamous manhunt in history.
One Must Tell the Bees is the untold story of Sherlock Holmes’s journey from the streets of London to the White House of Abraham Lincoln and, in company with a freed slave named after the dead President, their breathtaking pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. It is the very first case of the man who would become known to the world as Sherlock Holmes, and as readers will discover, it will haunt him until his very last.
Examine the data, Watson! I could hear him say, urging upon me the kind of logical reflection which my haste typically did not allow. There are too many unanswered questions, don’t you think?
Letters from Sherlock Holmes were infrequent and never marked as urgent. Dr John Watson had, at first, dismissed the package and its contents, believing them to be nothing more than an ill-conceived prank. Holmes had long since been cured of his opiate infirmity, and therefore, the urgency of the note attached to the package made for nonsensical reading. But, on closer inspection of the contents of the package, Watson discovers a timetable, an Ordnance Survey Map and a slim manuscript titled:
The Art of Science and Rational Deduction
By Sherlock Holmes
The handwriting was Holmes’, and the neatly typed manuscript with the crippled Q, not to mention the editing notes in Holmes’ hand, led Watson to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, this package and letter were genuine. Watson immediately answers his dear friend’s call for help. But, as Watson soon discovers, not everything is as it seems…
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle has been mesmerising readers for over 100 years, so much so that Doyle's stories, and larger-than-life characters have, under the disguise of metamorphosis, transformed into legendary historical characters. Such is the fame, and the endless fascination with these two characters that it goes without saying, if Holmes and Watson were not actual historical characters, then perhaps they should have been. J. Lawrence Matthews has run with this idea that these characters were “real” and by doing so he has penned a story that is not only vastly entertaining but one where the realism is almost tangible and the historical backdrop is second to none.
Sherlock Holmes conjures up images of a man with an almost superhuman mind. He can predict outcomes, he can read situations, and he is constantly one step ahead of his enemies, and more often than not, he is one step ahead of himself as well! The cases that Holmes solves are not done so with the primary motive for justice, but because of something as simple as boredom. They present an intellectual challenge. They are a puzzle to be solved. This superhuman is in fact very human, and his very nature, his desperate desire for seclusion and to live a life where his main concern is the welfare of his bees, is very telling. However, this story does not focus on Holmes’ career as a highly successful “consulting detective”, but instead it takes the reader back in time to Holmes’ childhood, where secrets, that he has not even shared with Watson, are finally revealed. Who is the real Sherlock Holmes? This novel answers that question. J. Lawrence Matthews has penned a luxuriantly detailed and highly appealing character with his depiction of Holmes. As we follow the young Sherlock Holmes, the author describes how this young man became such a force to be reckoned with. The one very clear thing, and in keeping with his character, is that he notices everything, even from a young age. His journey from a destitute little boy on the streets of Wapping, to England’s most respected detective, has been wonderfully depicted. Written with not only elegance but a strong sense of authority, J. Lawrence Matthews has created a character that I think even Doyle would not have objected to. I thought Holmes’ depiction was utterly sublime and marvellous in the telling.
The good doctor, as one would expect, is always one step behind Holmes, and yet, ironically, the one thing he brings to the table, the reason why this partnership has been so successful, is because of his grand gift of silence. Watson is often caught up in the events that he is living, but his ability to read a situation is far more scientific than subjective. Watson is the sounding board for the infamous detective, but there is also an edge of playfulness between the two, as well as mutual respect. Although there are times when Holmes toys with Watson, as he did in the original stories, by and large, it is Watson that keeps Holmes and his ego grounded. I thought Watson’s depiction was fabulously drawn. He is a man of deep integrity, and he is also unwittingly Holmes' eyes and ears—through careful questioning, Holmes can inconspicuously gather clues. Watson’s love for Holmes is unquestionable. The two have, after all, gone through many things together, and despite so long apart, these two elderly gentlemen can still read one another, which means when together, they are a formidable opponent for even the most skilled and quick-witted villain. I thought that J. Lawrence Matthews has really captured the essence of Watson’s character and has brought him marvellously to life.
The attention is the historical detail is outstanding and must be given the praise that it is due. J. Lawrence Matthews has immersed his readers into a highly volatile world, where strong emotions and unprecedented strife and war have been portrayed with a keen understanding of the era. This is a novel that is so impeccably researched that I found no fault, no glaring inaccuracy. There are no corners cut. No second guessing. Everything from the depiction of the historical characters and events to the more mundane everyday life of this period has been depicted with a seemingly flawless crystalline understanding. Everything has been thoroughly researched, which means this novel screams authenticity. To read such a well-researched novel was a treat that I thoroughly appreciated. The fact that Holmes slips easily into this period of history and the events that occurred, is very telling of the author's skill.
The narrative of this novel is incredibly fast-paced, think Guy Ritchie’s (2009) Sherlock Holmes. To be able to write so comprehensively and keep the pace throughout the length of this novel is especially difficult to do, but J. Lawrence Matthews has done so with the utmost of ease, and although this novel is very long, coming in at 490 pages, it did not feel at all drawn out and nor did it lose momentum.
One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes by J. Lawrence Matthews is a brilliantly executed novel. It is in every way a historical fiction masterpiece and one that I could happily read over and over again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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J. Lawrence Matthews has contributed fiction to the New York Times and NPR and is the author of three non-fiction books as Jeff Matthews. “One Must Tell the Bees” is his first novel. Written at a time when American history is being scrutinized and recast in the light of 21st Century mores, this fast-paced account of Sherlock Holmes’s visit to America during the final year of the Civil War illuminates the profound impact of Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation on slavery, the war and America itself. Matthews is now researching the sequel, which takes place a bit further afield—in Florence, Mecca and Tibet.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx