The Cyprian Bees

Among the medical fictional detectives is Dr Eustace Hailey of Harley Street, specialist in nervous diseases. He was introduced to the world by his creator, Dr Robert McNair Wilson, under the pseudonym Anthony Wynne, in 1925, who subsequently wrote twenty-six novels and many short stories in which Dr Hailey solved previously insoluble crimes.

McNair Wilson (1882 – 1963) was a man of parts. Originally destined for the church, he had no vocation and studied medicine instead. Then he took to journalism, first for Lord Northcliffe and then for the Times as medical correspondent. During the First World War, he worked as a research assistant to Sir James Mackenzie, the cardiologist, studying the effect of ‘trench fever’ on the heart. He subsequently wrote two books of cardiology, The Hearts of Men and The Nervous Heart: Its Nature, Causation, Prognosis and Treatment.

After the war, he became a busy cardiologist, while remaining at the Times. He wrote extensively on economic matters, excoriating the banking system in two books and advocating a return to a type of feudalism. Two of his sons became Members of Parliament.

In a short story called The Cyprian Bees (1926), Dr Hailey solves a mysterious murder committed, as it turns out, by his old medical school friend, the eminent bacteriologist Dr Michael Cornwall. Dr Cornwall is in a financial fix; he needs to kill three people, including one very expensive paramour, a cousin and an uncle, in order to inherit the money that will set him right again.

The paramour is found dead in her car in Piccadilly, having been stung to death by a single bee sting in the forehead from a Cyprian bee. The finding of a little box nearby containing three such bees gives the game away, at least to Dr Eustace Hailey.

He surmises that the paramour has died of anaphylactic shock, having previously been sensitised to the bee sting of this particular breed. From this he concludes that the murderer must be a doctor, who has sensitised the victim under cover of immunising her.

So it turns out; and at the climax of the story, Dr Cornwall’s uncle (from whom he is second in line to inherit after his cousin, and who has also been sensitised to the bee-sting) is also stung anaphylactically to death. But the heroic Dr Hailey prevents the cousin from being similarly stung, and Dr Cornwall, the bacteriologist, knows the game is up and blows out his brains.

I read this story in a huge compilation put out by Daily Express Publications in 1934, called The World’s Greatest Detective Stories, 1024 pages long. I couldn’t help wondering, if The Cyprian Bees was one of the world’s greatest detective stories, what the worst ones were like. Oddly enough, a pedant had owned the copy of this book before me, I suspect soon after publication, and had annotated it with corrections of the authors’ grammar and exposures of their non sequiturs. I think he was probably a prickly person, for scattered through the book are comments at the end of stories such as ‘Wretchedly told – deliberately incoherent’ or ‘Unconvincing and in parts obscure.’ Against particularly egregious nonsense he writes the single testy word ‘Rot’.

He makes no such comment on The Cyprian Bees and its absurd plot. But probably he was in awe of doctors.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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