‘One Must Tell the Bees’ by J. Lawrence Matthews

A reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’ last adventure, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes by J. Lawrence Matthews starts out as a delightful and light read.

In Matthews’ version of this Holmes installment, we get stories within stories, mysteries layered on mysteries, and all in model Holmes style. At the beginning of One Must Tell the Bees, Watson receives a letter from the retired Holmes indicating that Holmes has started abusing narcotics again and needs Watson’s aid as a doctor. With his letter, Holmes also sends a manuscript detailing his first ever case and his own origin story. This is a story Holmes claims he’s told no one, not even Watson: one that involves the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Abraham Lincoln. Watson, perturbed by the urgent nature of his friends’ request, rushes to Holmes’ aid in the English countryside, taking the manuscript along with him. From there, readers are whisked on a wild journey to 1860s America through Holmes’ manuscript while simultaneously following Watson on a harrowing train ride. 

Charming, spectacularly detailed, and thoroughly engaging, One Must Tell the Bees unfortunately falters hard in one major place: Matthews’ portrays all of the African American characters in the novel as subservient and deferential. While it could easily be taken for granted that a freed slave (such as the leading African American character, Abraham) would act in such a way, I wanted that assumption to be challenged. In his portrayal, Matthews reduces the African American characters in the book to stock characters with colloquial vernacular that Holmes narrates in an entirely unhelpful way. In an interview with Big Blend, Matthews talks about the research he did to accurately portray the history and people he depicts, including reading the diaries of enslaved people. But what I wondered the whole time I read the book, was not what research Matthews did, but to what lengths he went to involve real, living black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in accurately portraying BIPOC in the past. Did he have sensitivity readers, editors, reviewers that were people of color?  

Similarly, Matthews portrayal of Holmes and Abraham Lincoln only further espouse problematic white-savior narratives. Not only is there a feeling of “white man saves the day” in the book, but there’s also a strange moralizing component as well. These perspectives aren’t uncommon, and often garner a wealth of positive reviews (e.g., The Greatest ShowmanThe Help), but that doesn’t mean we need any more of those perspectives circulating.

All of these feelings were tangled in the fast-paced, engrossing narration, and I often found myself second guessing what I was thinking. Was I over analyzing Matthews’ portrayal of people of color, of white men in the novel? And then I found the interview with Big Blend mentioned above, and my suspect feelings were confirmed. In the interview, Matthews argues for maintaining Confederate statues so as not to forget our past. And while the sentiment of remembering our past and learning from our mistakes is a commendable one, doing so through glorifying slave owners and people who fought to enslave other human beings (no matter what their arguments to the contrary were), is not quite the way to go about remembering our past. Unfortunately, the interview only confirmed the hunches I had about the book.

Matthews has already announced a sequel to One Must Tell the Bees, and my greatest hope is that he does the work to address the above-mentioned issues in his sequel in order to write a more social justice conscious book.

One Must tell the Bees was beautifully written, captured the style and tone of Holmes with fervor, and was undeniably enjoyable most of the time; however, its major flaw is one that can’t be overlooked.

Published in May of 2021 by East Dean Press, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

Read more historical fiction reviews on Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

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