It’s difficult to know where to begin with A Taste for Honey (1941), the first of three ‘Mr. Mycroft’ novels by H.F. Heard. The core conceit is delightfully barmy — I shall avoid naming it in this review to preserve it for the curious — and played with an impressively straight face, but beyond that there’s really only a short story’s worth of content here, spread thinly over 189 generously-margined pages. With only one plot-line, only really three characters, and nothing to widen the universe or engage the mind in any meaningful way past the halfway point (when the ending will already be painfully obvious to anyone), this really is just a latter-day Holmes pastiche with verbal diarrhoea.
It starts very entertainingly indeed, with the gustatory predilections of the (perhaps appropriately) waspish Sidney Silchester bringing him in contact with Mr. and Mrs. Heregrove in search of honey. They, it seems, are the only people in the bucolic surrounds to which Silchester had removed himself to live out his days as unmolested by social graces as possible who have any luck in keeping bees, and so a monthly transaction becomes habit, much to Silchester’s misgivings:
I feared she might make [lending me a] basket an excuse for a call; at the best a bore, at the worst a beg.
Problems arise when Mrs. Heregrove is killed, the circumstances leading Silchester to hunt for a new apiarist to sate his sweet tooth — seriously, this guy goes through a lot of honey, and nothing is ever made of it…Roald Dahl would have given this a twist, Heard just views this degree of consumption to be normal — and thus comes upon newly-arrived Mr. Mycroft and the bees with which he is experimenting.
From here, we must be more circumspect, but suffice to say that it’s the point where real interest begins to develop, and yet it develops upon such a narrow line that you wonder why Heard didn’t trim the excess 40,000 words and send it to a magazine. After the, er, key development, do we really need Silchester speculating for four pages that he’ll be sent to the madhouse if he tells anyone about it? The holding forth over a meal about Russia and…whatever the hell else that’s about…does that add anything? We already know (prior to the former) the Silchester is a brittle neurotic who will always resile to the perspective of wounded dignity whenever anything upsets his routine, and (prior to the latter) that…well, in all honesty, I can see no purpose for the latter at all except the book was only 180 pages and needed some more stuff in it.
Throughout, however, it is delightfully written, with Silchester a firm contender for Most Pompous Arsehole You Nevertheless Quite Like in Fiction. Take, say:
I’ve said I know little about bees but of course I knew they could, like most spinsters in crowds, at moments temperamental and even neurotic.
[A]n excited and talking woman seems to me to combine the characteristics of all the violent and rapid forces of nature and man.