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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Tomb of the Honey Bee by L.B. Hathaway

October 1, 2020

Whitehaven Man Press:  London
2014 (PB)

The last few reviews posted at this site have been of books very high in quality but dealing with subjects dark and sinister.  It was therefore something of a change of pace when I happened upon a little volume that dealt with archaeology (briefly and tangentially) but delightfully returned me to the days when I would voraciously devour every mystery novel I could find written by the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and of course, Dame Agatha Christie.

Author Hathaway returns the reader to this Golden Age of Mystery with her clever and charming private investigator, the unlikely-named Posie Parker in this very British cozy.  It is the very hot summer of 1921 (an early harbinger of global warning?) and Lady Violet Boynton-Dale beseeches Posie to come as quickly as possible to the family manor, Boynton Hall in Oxfordshire, to investigate the disappearance of, and what Lady Violet believes may have been the murder of her brother Alaric—a former World War 1 flying ace, now world-famous explorer, and honey bee maven!  Alaric has disappeared under inauspicious circumstances—his beloved Fokker aeroplane had been sabotaged, his exploring gear has been left behind and his bee hives had been deliberately torched.  To add to the deepening mystery, it was rumored that he was intending to change his last Will and Testament by leaving his not-inconsiderable fortune to his sister Violet rather than the more traditional heir, his younger and decidedly dissolute brother Roderick—but no one, including Alaric’s lawyer, can find a copy of the new Will. The Boynton Hall household is not without a bevy of very likely suspects who might wish Alaric would come to an untimely end.  They include, of course, brother Roderick, knee-deep in gambling debts; his gauche American-born wife Eve; Roderick’s dodgy valet, Codlington, who is also Roderick’s gambling enabler; houseguest and famed mystery writer, Dame Ianthe Flowers, and jilted lover of Alaric.  The neighboring estate also holds possible suspects in the persons of Hugo Marchpane, wounded World War 1 flying ace and war-time comrade of Alaric, who also happened to be the lover of Marchpane’s wife, Lady Cosima Catchpole.

Posie’s investigations lead her to the discovery in Alaric’s chambers an ancient coin Alaric wore since a boy as a medallion—with a honeybee etched on one side and the mysterious words Serafina/Hyblaea on the other.    With the help of British Museum coin specialist William “Binkie” Dodds, and British Museum Egyptologist and old friend of Alaric’s and fellow bee-keeper—Harry Redmayne, Posie learns that the coin and its etchings refer to the almost mythic Hyblaean honey produced at the legendary beehives of Serafina Monastery in Sicily.  Posie believes that Alaric is still alive and may likely have sought refuge there.  She sets off for Siracusa (Syracuse) in Sicily and does indeed discover that Alaric is in hiding—and for good reason as bodies begin to pile up around Posie’s investigations—including Dame Ianthe, Binkie (who has followed Posie to Sicily) and Ianthe’s literary agent. Parenthetically, Ianthe had been penning a mystery set at a manor house in Oxfordshire, inhabited by characters very like those in and around Boynton Hall; the last page of the manuscript—the one revealing “whodunit” — had mysteriously disappeared!

Trying to escape the dangers that have followed them to Sicily, Alaric and Posie flee to Luxor, Egypt, and the Valley of the Kings to join Harry Redmayne’s massive excavations of the Tomb of Ammotep, god of bees and honey.  There is a vivid and engaging description of Harry’s dig at Luxor, a la Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia.  Alas, more skullduggery ensues at the excavation as it appears that the villain has tracked Posie and Alaric to Egypt despite their best efforts at lying low.  But clever plotting by Posie brings the story back to its original site as all suspects and characters of interest and brought back to Boynton Hall and, in true Christie fashion, Posie makes the big reveal and the killer is unveiled—with a Scotland Yard detective on hand to slap on the cuffs!

Four enthusiastic trowels for this Golden Age of Mystery revival—admittedly a little light on archaeology—but a great good fun!