Ben’s Review: “Kissing the Beehive” by Jonathan Carroll

Kissing the Beehive is a 1997 novel by Jonathan Carroll, one of my all-time favorite writers. While many of Carroll’s works include magical situations and elements (talking dogs, gods who are polar bears, ghosts who fall in love, etc.) Kissing The Beehive is mostly grounded in a recognizable reality. Unfortunately, there was little about the novel that interested or surprised me. Part of what make’s Carroll’s other novels so delightful is the slightly left-of-center perspective from which they view the world, magical or otherwise. In comparison to those better novels, Kissing the Beehive is disappointingly mundane.

Kissing the Beehive is the story of Samuel Bayer, a popular and successful writer of thrillers. Since the release of his most recent book, he has been crippled by anxiety and writer’s block; his new project, already behind schedule, is going nowhere. On a book tour for a paperback release of his latest book, he meets Veronica Lake, an enigmatic superfan who makes an immediate impression on the author. While driving home, Bayer passes through Crane’s View, his childhood home, where, at fifteen, he found the dead body of a girl in a nearby river. Bayer decides that he has a “great book” in him, and that it will be the story of Pauline Ostrova, the strange young woman whose body he found, and that with Veronica’s help he will write it.

From there, Kissing the Beehive becomes a fairly by-the-numbers crime mystery. As Bayer digs deeper into the Pauline’s mysterious death, he discovered layers of conspiracy, fraught with sexual indiscretion, romance, and betrayal. Working with local police chief Frannie McCabe, Bayer spends several months in Crane’s View and cities all over the country trying to piece together the mystery. Meanwhile, someone, Pauline’s real killer perhaps, seeds clues and bits of assistance along Bayer’s path, leading him in new directions and encouraging him to finish the book.

The plot never really gels. The conclusion comes quickly, and the final piece of the puzzle is not brought on stage until the last chunk of the book, which felt like a deus ex machina. What could have been a surprising revelation just ended up feeling cheap. I think the best mystery stories are ones where the reader can follow along and, looking back, find that the author has cleverly seeded all the necessary information solve the puzzle. That is not the case in Kissing the Beehive.

Still, many of the hallmarks of Carroll’s better work is on display here. This is a story about how stories are made, how myth and memory are formed. Bayer’s narration is peppered with interesting observations about the life of a writer and the nature of storytelling. He and the other characters have a tendency to make interesting, if a little thin, metaphors for their experience (Bayer at once point compares his relationship with Veronica Lake to catching fireflies as a child). These moments often feel forced, but there is an undeniable charm to them. Carroll’s characters view the world in interesting, if not always convincing ways.

In this book, Carroll puts much of his storytelling energies into character relationships. Frannie McCabe (who continues as a character later Carroll work, most notably the excellent The Wooden Sea), is a convincing and lovable reformed child bully. Bayer’s daughter Cassandra is an independent, intelligent young woman who keeps her father level. Even Veronica Lake, who announces herself very loudly as an obvious fictional construct–many of Carroll’s other women characters are, like Veronica, idealized, hyper-interesting, hyper-literate, hyper-sensual beings–plays an interesting role in a story that tries to keep you guessing about everyone’s motives.

It’s unfair to judge the book based on my past experience with an author. The root cause of my lack of enthusiasm for Kissing the Beehive isn’t the absence of a magical or fantastical element, or at least not completely. I was indeed waiting for some magical turn or interesting transfiguration of the plot, not to validate my expectations based on the author’s previous work, but rather because I was waiting for Kissing the Beehive to become more than the sum of its disappointingly familiar parts. Unfortunately, it never really did. It is a wholly serviceable, average crime novel from an author from whom I’ve come to expect brilliance.

Kissing the Beehive gets three pieces of lasagna.

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