Author: J. Lawrence Matthews
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Length: 19 hours 13 minutes
Publisher: East Dean Press
Released: Oct. 1, 2021
“What do you get when you cross Abraham Lincoln with Sherlock Holmes? The alchemy of creative genius. Matthews brings us to the intersection of history and fiction in this beautifully written epic full of unfathomable twists and turns. It’s elementary: this book is sensational.” (Jim Campbell, syndicated radio host and author of Madoff Talks: Uncovering the Untold Story Behind the Most Notorious Ponzi Scheme in History)
“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’ 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 listeners will discover, it will haunt him until his very last.
At a time when Western history is being reexamined and retold, old heroes cast aside and statues torn down, and even the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator”, is questioned, One Must Tell the Bees is a timely reminder that our history deserves to be understood before it is entirely undone.
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—but readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in the history behind “One Must Tell the Bees” will find it at jlawrencematthews.com.
Q&A with Author J. Lawrence Matthews
- Tell us about the process of turning your book into an audiobook.
- My PR firm has an affiliate that does audiobooks. They turned out to be very good. I sent them several excerpts in order to audition potential narrators. They sent me a half-dozen audio files from various actors, both American and British. Eventually I settled on Thomas Judd (See Question 4) who had some excellent questions for me after reading the manuscript but before he started recording. When the recording was done, I listened to it (all 19 hours!), took notes and sent back a list of perhaps two dozen errors or corrections, which were then fixed. (NB: I discovered that certain literary devices don’t work in audiobooks; for example, I ended up removing from the audiobook the brief quotations from various books that had introduced each of the five parts of ONE MUST TELL THE BEES, because they were confusing in audiobook form–it wasn’t clear they were different from my own text.) Meanwhile, I worked with the firm on the introductory music, because I wanted a specific sound. They found a musician to record a violin playing “A Balm in Gilead” for reasons that will be clear later in this Q&A. Altogether it was a relatively pain-free process, and, as an unexpected bonus, I discovered by listening to the book that there were several points in the story that needed an additional line or two, which I only heard when listening to the recording. I fixed those not only for the audiobook but also in the printed versions–and now I understand why the great historian David McCullough listens to his wife read his books aloud before they go to the publisher!
- How did you select your narrator?
- My production team sent me a half-dozen digital audition recordings of short excerpts from ONE MUST TELL THE BEES. I listened to each and requested follow-ups with a couple of the narrators, but It was quickly clear this was going to be difficult. There are two main ‘voices’ narrating the book—Dr. Watson’s and Sherlock Holmes’s, both British—but the book also contains half a dozen important American voices, including Abraham Lincoln’s, as well as those of several important female characters, not to mention freed slaves who play a crucial role in the American story. It was imperative the narrator could switch from upper-class British to back-country American; from male to female; from Black to White. Most narrators were good at either British or American voices, but not both. Then came Thomas Judd. His Sherlock and Watson were terrific, pitch-perfect and very easy on the ears, and his American and female voices were also very very good. I picked him and never regretted the decision.
- How closely did you work with your narrator before and during the recording process?
- We’re an ocean apart physically, so to this day I have never met Thomas Judd, but I sent him the manuscript and was shocked and pleasantly surprised when, before recording, he came back to me with questions about several Shakespeare quotes in ONE MUST TELL THE BEES (Lincoln was very fond of Shakespeare and liked to read aloud to friends). I had mistakenly misquoted from Macbeth, but had purposely slightly misquoted Hamlet—and Thomas caught both instances and wanted to make sure he knew what I meant. That astonished me.
- Did you give them any pronunciation tips or special insight into the characters?
- Yes, but not many. There are several Americanized words in the book that it was important to get right; also, Abraham Lincoln is not easy for a narrator. One thinks of Lincoln as a somber, deep-voiced speaker–but in fact he was a country lawyer and by all accounts spoke in a high-pitched voice that was geared for swaying juries and being heard in outdoor settings before microphones were available. And it was important for the listener to be able to distinguish Holmes, Watson and Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock’s brother), even though all three are male, British voices. But Thomas brought great skill to the proceedings and needed very little prompting!
- Were there any real life inspirations behind your writing?
- Abraham Lincoln was the key real life inspiration behind the book, of course, because one of the dominant lessons of ONE MUST TELL THE BEES is the importance of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, many (if not most) of the fictional incidents in the book derive in some manner from things that happened to me during my life. For example, the scene involving a freed slave preaching alongside the Potomac River in 1865 was based on my experience seeing the Reverend Jesse Jackson preach decades ago when I was fresh out of college.
- Are you an audiobook listener?
- An avid listener, but very particular about the narrator, because the voice makes such a huge difference to the story.
- What about the audiobook format appeals to you?
- Three things: 1) I love listening while driving, biking or walking, because those are large blocks of time when I can become absorbed in a different world while still navigating the ‘real world.’ 2) Great narrators can bring to life great characters—especially Dickens, but also, of course, Sherlock Holmes—in a way that I can’t just by reading the words. 3) Some literature demands to be listened to because it was created to be spoken on a stage, not read on the page. This applies to Shakespeare, especially.
- Is there a particular part of this story that you feel is more resonating in the audiobook performance than in the book format?
- Great question. Yes. There is a scene late in the book after Sherlock Holmes has revealed to Dr. Watson the previously untold story of his time in America as a very young chemist during the Civil War and has described, among other things, the physical and emotional wounds of slavery he witnessed there. Then Holmes grows quiet and reflective, and begins playing on his violin the tune to “There is A Balm in Gilead,” an old spiritual he learned in America. When the audio narrator (as Sherlock Holmes) begins singing to the music “There is a balm in Gilead/to heal the sin-sick soul,” it just floored me. I got chills hearing it.
- What do you say to those who view listening to audiobooks as “cheating” or as inferior to “real reading”?
- First, it takes just as much time to listen to a book as it does to read it—so how is that “cheating”? Second, as an author I’m trying to convey the voices in my head onto paper so a reader can ‘hear’ those voices, too, which is what happens with “real reading.” But if a great actor can translate those words from paper to audio, I’m thrilled—and so should the listener be! Third, that theory would mean that reading Shakespeare is “cheating” because his plays were intended to be heard on a stage, not read in a book! All in all, nonsense. A great footballer can score with his feet or his head—why not absorb great literature with your ears as well as your eyes?
- What bits of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
- Find a way to write something every day, whatever you do—airline pilot, CEO, waiter, nurse—and do it, even if it’s only 10 minutes. Don’t hold off for moments of inspiration or blocks of time on weekends or when you’re on holiday. You will find two things happen: 1) the words accumulate, 2) your brain begins to solve problems during your working day because your story is always in the back of your mind—and solving problems is 80% of writing. (You not only solve problems while you’re awake. I’ll come halfway out of sleep with the lines in my head, text them to myself and go back to sleep.) Write every day, no matter what.
- What’s next for you?
- I have a short, fun, Christmas book coming out next fall in which Sherlock Holmes gets pranked. Meanwhile, I’m researching the follow-up to ONE MUST TELL THE BEES, which tells the story of how an older Sherlock Holmes meets the Dalai Lama. It takes place during the 1890s when Britain and Russia were locked in a diplomatic chess match over Tibet and it is great fun to research, although the reality of what China has done to Tibet since 1959 is one of the great political and human tragedies of our times, and deserves to be better exposed. I’m going to do my part.
Plugging you into the audio community since 2016.