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Author Interview with J. Lawrence Matthews, author of "One Must Tell the Bees"

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

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 jlawrencematthews@gmail.com. Those interested in the history behind “One Must Tell the Bees” will find it at jlawrencematthews.com.




Author J. Lawrence Matthews invites readers on a remarkable journey with a precocious young chemist named Holmes from the streets of London to Washington D.C. in the last year of the Civil War. This vivid, previously untold story takes place during a crucial period in history that Americans are once again seeking to understand—and may now see through the keen eyes of Sherlock Holmes, thanks to One Must Tell The Bees: The Final Education of Sherlock Holmes, (Nov. 19, 2021, East Dean Press).

It begins in 1918 in the English countryside where the world’s greatest detective has retired to tend his bees and write his memoirs — memoirs that reveal the full story of his journey to America, first as a junior chemist at the DuPont gunpowder works in Wilmington, then as a companion for young Tad Lincoln on what turns out to be the evening of President Lincoln’s assassination — and finally as an unsung participant in the electrifying manhunt for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

It is Holmes’s very first case. But, as One Must Tell The Bees reveals, it is nothing like his final education …



“Sherlock Holmes in America? An idea as immersive as it is plausible, in Matthews’ skillful hands. This is a compelling, transporting feat of imagination.”

— Jonathan Stone, bestselling author of Moving Day

“Bracing storytelling.”

— Kirkus Reviews


​​“...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.”

Coffee Pot Book Club

“…the thing that I find most impressive (and something I look for in every historical-fiction book I read) is that the fictional characters are crafted in such a way as to make them appear to be historical as well…and that, my fellow readers, is the mark of excellent storytelling.”

— Hoover Book Reviews

“Matthews creates a fabulous version of the end of the American Civil War and the hunt for Booth that will have readers turning their pages swiftly, eager to see Holmes on the trail of perhaps the most famous murderer of the 19th century.”

— I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere


“WHAT A STORY!!! One Must Tell the Bees charms you out of your world and into an irresistible adventure when Sherlock Holmes steps onto American soil, into the White House of Abraham Lincoln and, yes, joins the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth! Holmes’s wit and Lincoln’s genius shine through, and the colorful characters, plot surprises, and wonderful historical details so completely immerse you that by the last page you'll be happier and a whole lot wiser.”

— Layng Martine Jr., Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer and author of Permission to Fly


“This book is so well written that at times I would have to stop and catch myself because I was fully believing every word I read!... Mr. Matthews flawlessly weaves history and fiction together until the edge between real and not real blurs together, the fictional characters fitting the history so well it is hard to differentiate between the two. The characters become as much a part of the true history as do the real people involved. An excellent story from a master storyteller.

—Lori Harris, Amazon reviewer



An Interview with

J. Lawrence Matthews


1. What is it about Sherlock Holmes that originally captured your attention and inspired years of research?

When I graduated from reading Hardy Boy mysteries as a kid, the flawed genius of Sherlock Holmes came as a complete revelation — the cocaine bottle was something you didn’t see Frank and Joe Hardy messing with! That opened this messy adult world to me, and of course Holmes’s voice came across so distinctly, and the plots moved along so effortlessly, that it was as if Conan Doyle just sat down by the fire with his pipe and started telling a ripping good yarn, and I’ve been reading them ever since. To this day, I’d maintain a handful of the Holmes titles are among the best short stories ever written, Hemingway included. The straw that stirs the drink, in my view, is the pair’s friendship: Watson dulls Holmes’s brilliance and makes him easier to tolerate. Don’t we all want to possess that kind of insightful, rational intelligence — and yet, as adults, don’t we also see the dark side to that kind of focused, monomaniacal lifestyle? It’s good vs evil in a timeless Victorian setting, and it never grows old.


2. What made you decide to focus on Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation?

I’ve been a student of the Civil War for decades, ever since I read a book on Lincoln and mentioned to my wife that even after four years of college I knew nothing about the Civil War. Couldn’t even say which Jackson — Andrew or Stonewall — was the Confederate general and which the American president! So she bought me a book on the war and I began reading, and I’ve been reading about it, and visiting the battlefields, ever since, trying to grasp what it was all about. And what it was about, at first, for the North anyway, was restoring the Union even if that meant slavery in the South remained intact. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 changed everything, however, because it freed slaves wherever Northern troops won a victory. America could no longer go backwards: with every victory of Northern troops came freedom for slaves in that region of the South. That’s quite a profound thing, and quite underappreciated today. I have long felt its impact should be less misunderstood, and Sherlock was an excellent vehicle to do that.


3. Walk us through your research and writing process for stories based during a time you didn’t live through.

I’ve been effectively doing “research” for 30 years as a student of the Civil War, so I wrote the story of Holmes in America straight through — from his arrival near the time of Lincoln’s reelection to the manhunt for Booth — with a little help from Wikipedia to get dates right. Then I went deep into many of my old books, plus many new ones, in order to make certain the action matched the history. After all, why should anyone care what Sherlock Holmes learns in America in 1865 if I’ve made up the history of that period? AndCivil War “buffs” in particular are notoriously picky — as am I! Meanwhile, I visited all the key sites, including the old DuPont gunpowder works (now the Hagley Museum in Wilmington), Ford’s Theater, Petersburg and Richmond, the major battlefields and of course Booth’s escape route through Maryland (many times). As the story came together, I triple-checked dates and events, all the while compressing the action, because Booth was on the run for 12 days, with 5 of those days spent hiding in a pine thicket, and I didn’t want to lose the reader by describing every minute of days when nothing happened — while staying true to the timeline.


4. Can you explain how you keep your writing realistic but also fun and fictitious.

It starts with the voice. Sherlock Holmes has a distinctive voice — very different from Dr. Watson, who narrates half of my book — and Holmes’s is a wonderful voice to write with, because it is didactic and precise, not flowery or Victorian, but with a keen sense of humor. Watson’s voice is fun to write, too — stuffy, more conventional, but with a great sense of story. So long as I kept those voices in my head the action stayed lively and true (something I learned the hard way when, after completing the book for the first time, my inner English student took over and I spent a good three months trying to pare down the number of pages until I realized everything I’d re-written was worse, and quite boring. When I brought back Holmes’s chatty, precise voice, and Watson’s more formal but evocative tone, the story came back.


5. What are you working on now?

Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game, which answers the question of what Holmes was doing during the three years he was presumed dead following his struggle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891. All we are told in the original stories is that he journeyed incognito to Florence, then Tibet (where he paid a visit to the Dalai Lama), then Mecca and Sudan before making his way to France and finally returning to London. That’s quite an itinerary, don’t you think? It suggests a spiritual journey as well as a physical one, and I’ve always felt it merited unearthing the true story of those travels (what did Sherlock Holmes discuss with the Dalai Lama???) As it happens, they occurred during a period when the Tsar was attempting to extend Russian influence south into Tibet, which of course Great Britain viewed as a direct threat to the Crown’s hold on India — a diplomatic chess match known as “the Great Game.” Hence, Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game.


6. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

James Joyce’s grave site in Zurich, Switzerland. Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. The Martin Luther King museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The Thomas Wolfe house in Ashville, North Carolina.

7. Tell us the best writing tip you can think of, something that helps you.

Write every day, at least one word, no matter what you do (airline pilot, chef, CEO, waiter, nurse, author, retired—whatever you do). To enable that, study your day and develop a system that allows you the time. Whether it’s after work, before work, on the tube, in the car, after dinner, find a time that works. Just don’t make it too hard on yourself. Don’t be too ambitious. 15 minutes a day is okay. Just do it every day.

8. What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Advice for young writers starting out.

Trap #1 is not writing every day—pretending you can do it when the spirit moves you, or when you have a long weekend. Trap #2 is the same as Trap #1!

9. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

“Remember all that writing you did all those years while you were working other jobs that ended up in the drawer because it wasn’t any good? It was still worthwhile.” 10. What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

Jonathan Stone, author of nine thrillers and the bestseller Moving Day, helped me become a better writer because I wanted to be as good as he is, and I’m a competitive guy! Also, Jon is a great sounding-board on the vagaries of the publishing business. Layng Martine, Jr., a songwriter and the author of Permission to Fly, introduced me to Beth Stein, my editor on One Must Tell the Bees, and Beth didn’t let me get away with anything. Every word matters to her.

11. Can you give us a quick review of a favourite book by one of your author friends?

Moving Day by Jonathan Stone is one of the best stories you’ll ever read, told with pace and—because it’s a Jonathan Stone book—more twists than an Olympic gymnast’s routine.

12. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

It made me leave mainstream publishing behind. I found it a very slow, plodding process.

13. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

My editor, Beth Stein, hands down. One Must Tell the Bees wouldn’t be what it is without her input. Period.

14. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I was just out of college working on the final political campaign of U.S. Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and had the privilege of being in the room when Reverend Jesse Jackson gave a speech for Brooke at a small church in Brockton. He pinned you to the wall—it was that powerful, not just in what he said but how he said it. 40 years later I used that as the basis for a scene in One Must Tell the Bees.

15. What’s the best way to market your books?

Book reviews in media that reach your target readers.

16. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

One Must Tell the Bees is historical fiction, so I did immense research over a 5-year period: roughly 50% from books; 30% from online resources; and 20% on location.

17. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

Nobody has ever asked me this before, and the answer is “yes, very.” When you write every day your entire being is always working on the story somewhere in the back of your mind. You begin to hear lines and let the characters take the story places your conscious self didn’t anticipate. I found it a HIGHLY spiritual act of creation.

18. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Every book I read makes me think differently about fiction, although I can’t say they change my own style or goals.

19. What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?

To be true to those figures. My goal in One Must Tell the Bees was to make it read like history, not historical fiction, so it was important to make Abraham Lincoln as real as he was in life.

20. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I follow comedian Steve Martin’s advice: he never looks at the audience during his routines because he invariably sees the one person who’s not laughing, and it throws him off. I think bad reviews throw you off, so I try not to read any of the reviews on social media. I do look at the overall rating on Amazon—that’s important to me—but I try to stay away from the individual comments. And of course I’ll read reviews by established reviewers. My favorite form of feedback is Zooming with book clubs. They are committed to your work, and you learn a great deal in the process.

21. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

For me, it was writing the hard stuff of the novel—the connections that move the story from one point to the next. I wanted to write the fun stuff—the first time Sherlock Holmes meets Abraham Lincoln! Sherlock Holmes on the trail of John Wilkes Booth! That kind of thing. 20% of the book was a joy to write. 80% was excruciating.

22. Tell us about your novel/novels/or series and why you wrote about this topic?

One Must Tell the Bees is the story of a very young chemist named Holmes traveling to America in the final year of the Civil War to conduct research at the DuPont Gunpowder Company, which leads him to a meeting with Abraham Lincoln and, after Lincoln’s assassination, puts him on the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. It is, we learn, the very first case of the detective who would become known to the world as Sherlock Holmes. The story grew out of twin passions for the original Holmes books by Conan Doyle and for American history as told on the battlefields of the Civil War, and I wrote it because I wanted to bring that period of our history to light in a realistic way that adds to our knowledge of those times as we reassess that history in the light of today’s mores.

23. What is your favourite line or passage from your own book?

When Holmes, who has retired to be a beekeeper in the South Downs, tells Watson (while they are having a conversation with Watson’s wife Margaret), that he, Watson, must “tell the bees” in the event Holmes has died, and Watson reacts with incredulity:

“Tell the bees?”

“One always tells the bees when their caretaker has passed on, Watson.”

“I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous!”

“Actually, John,” said Margaret softly. “It is quite a well understood thing. Otherwise they scatter.”

“Yes, madam, and I expect your husband will do it for me here at Went Hill when that day comes.”

24. What was your hardest scene to write?

The fight scene between young Sherlock Holmes and a duplicitous worker at the DuPont gunpowder plant. It was both necessary and difficult—necessary to show that young Holmes is a clever, quick-witted youth; and difficult because it had to be dramatic, and I had never written drama before.

25. Tell us your favourite quote and how the quote tells us something about you.

When Holmes is bedridden and dying (the story of Holmes’s journey to America in his youth has been told as a flashback), he mistakes the milkman’s arrival at his cottage early one morning for the Krishna, and he encourages Watson to greet the Krishna for him:

“Be gracious, Watson! I am quite ready to leave this body!”

I’d like to think I could summon that same confidence Sherlock Holmes possesses as he faced his own mortality.

—JLM

*****

Thank you, Mr Matthews, for being on the blog today and for the fabulous author interview!!

For those of you who wish to buy his book, here is the link: https://amzn.to/3F6lu6b


Dee Marley

HFC CEO

The Hist Fic Chickie


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