Authors: H. F. Heard
Heard is a bit of a contrast to that. While Conan Doyle is well versed in most things medical, Heard's ken pertaining to all sciences and religion is almost without peer. He has been labeled a philosopher, mystic, and theological historian, so when Mr. Mycroft apprises Silchester on these subjects no disagreement will be found among most readers unless they are experts in the subjects being mentioned.
The speculation that Mr. Silchester was modeled on Heard's independently wealthy friend C. R. Wood gains additional credence in this story, for how could anyone expect to earn a living by having an occupation of solving puzzles and decoding messages as well as possessing enough money to maintain an office and a secretary? Surely that was just a frivolity that happened to interest him rather than being dependent on this singular pursuit as a source of income.
Of a more bibliographic nature is the contrast between the American and British editions. The book was published first in America by Vanguard and utilized his
nom de plume
of H. F. Heard, a pseudonym used for most of his fictional writings. On the other hand, British publisher Cassell thought the public would better recognize the name of Gerald Heard from his earlier nonfiction works and decided not to make the change.
Another difference in the editions is the photograph of Heard that appears on the dust jacket. The Vanguard edition picture shows him with his familiar beard (grown in 1937 when an injury prevented him from shaving), while the Cassell edition has a photo taken in the mid-1930s showing him
any facial adornment. I must admit to preferring the bearded photo as he looks Rex Stout-like, the way you would like to imagine a mystery writer from the 1940s to have appeared. On the other hand, the clean-shaven Heard reminds me more of Mr. Milquetoast than it does Mr. Mycroft.
Speaking of Mr. Mycroft, in the British editions of
A Taste for Honey
he is Mr. Bowcross instead. Both books were published in the early 1940s at a time when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sons, Denis and Adrian, were threatening to sue anyone who borrowed from their father's work. As explained by John Roger Barrie in the afterword to the Blue Dolphin edition of
A Taste for Honey
, Cassell decided not to take the risk so they concluded that Mr. Mycroft, whose name is very remindful of Sherlock's older brother, should be changed. By the time the third Mr. Mycroft novel
The Notched Hairpin
saw print in 1951 the threats had subsided and Cassell restored the protagonist's original name.
The short story “The Adventure of Mr. Montalba, Obsequist” which is included in the appendix of this volume is making one of its few appearances in print since the tale debuted in
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
in 1945. This is a case in which Mr. Mycroft, who might occasionally be accused of pedantry, is definitely surpassed in that category by the grandiloquence and affectation displayed by Mr. Montalba. Readers possibly will ask if Heard is engaging in some leg pulling when he portrays a taxidermist as a stuffed shirt? A slight controversy arose when the editor of
first saw a proof of the story and labeled it a partial fantasy to which Heard protested, saying he had personally witnessed a man successfully demonstrating how to stay in a cataleptic state for a long period of time.
While most of what has appeared in this foreword may be fodder for those seeking background on the author and characters, the main thing is the book itself. It received accolades when it first saw print that still hold true today.
is not a story whose plot has been repeated by other authors. It is not only unique but also a nostalgic trip back to the pre-Second World War days as well as a very enjoyable read.
Paul D. Herbert founded The Tankerville Club, a Cincinnati-based Sherlockian society, in 1976, which he still moderates. He was invested into the Baker Street Irregulars in 1977. He is author of 1983's
The Sincerest Form of Flattery: An Historical Survey of Parodies, Pastiches, and Other Imitative Writings of Sherlock Holmes, 1891â1980
. He has written numerous articles for
The Baker Street Journal, the Sherlock Holmes Journal
Baker Street Miscellanea
. His writings have appeared in several Sherlockian anthologies, and he has lectured at numerous Sherlockian workshops, seminars, and symposiums. Mr. Herbert is a retired teacher.
“âWhen the flyer, whose flight is not through air, sitting in his cage stretches his wing toward the left.' I've read it a hundred times. It just gets under my skinânot being able to figure it out. I put it away in a drawer after the first few dozen attempts. Then suddenly I'd be sure I had it, snatch it out and start counting the letters, changing them, trying all the tricks. Even the simple plan of alternate letters, you see, begins by promising somethingââWe tel'âjust tantalizing enough to make one wonder if one wasn't on the trail and some further variation of the letters might yield a straight message. Why bother? Well, because that's only a beginning. Because after that picturesque gibberish there's something that follows. Yes, it isn't plain sailing, even then, but it's all the better reading for the eye which has picked it out. There is something here, mark my word, though the casual reader would have dismissed it when he saw it in the paper in which I found it printed, as first to last all one pieceâeither crook's code or just one of those pieces of perverse silliness with which the over-leisured amuse themselves. So, you see, I need a start. Now do you tumble to what I'm driving at? I need to get my hand under the edge of this code. I'm asking for bearings.”
The man who had shot all this off at me hadn't given me a chance to reply. He hadn't even sat down on coming into my office. He hadn't even waited for my secretary to show him in or even knocked! What he had said should show I had little chance of understanding what it was that he wanted.â¦ So I spent my time, while he ran on, in looking at him. Though his tone was pretty excited, it didn't seem to fit his appearanceâa quiet sort of little fellow. Big head with black hair which I suppose he rumpled whenever he was puzzled; nervous hands with those knobbly wrists which look as though constant twisting of them had made them get enlarged. He'd a knobbly nose, too.
I had just reached that point in my inventory, when, without waiting for me to give my guess as to his line, he continued: “You're a decoder, aren't you?”
“Well, yes,” I answered. “Codes have always interested me.”
“I know; I've followed you. That's part of modern prospecting.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Like everything else today, it has to be teamwork and, worse, teamwork against time. Name your fee and I'll tell you what I want. I've got to find this thing and I've got to find it fast. I think you're my man, and if you're notâwell, I reckon I've only time to make one mistake and then this chance may be gone for good.”
“Intil,” he added.
“Mr. Intil,” I said, “you have come to call on me without making an appointment. What exactly do you want me to do?”
“I've said; I've told you,” he replied. “Have I come to the wrong place? You
Mr. Silchester, aren't you?” Taking my nod for enough, he rushed on: “First you wrote that little book on cross-word puzzles and their setting and solving. Then you made that study of the Roger Bacon stuffâwhether there was really hidden Greek information in the twirls and twists of the tails of the letters in the actual manuscripts. And I know you're the author of a dozen articles in
. I know your style even when you don't sign. Yes, I know about your lot. You're just like the chess-championsâthey can look and be as dumb as a dolt till you put a board in front of them. Then they just go through it like a water-diviner following a buried drain.”
I let his compliments rest. “You want me to decode that piece of paper?”
“Of course! What have I been saying since I came here!”
“Then hand it to me.”
He hesitated, then put it carefully down on my desk in front of me. The passage which he had copied out, maybe from a press-cutting, ran as he had read it.
“It's usual âagony column' stuff,” I was remarking, when he cut in, “That's the disguiseâput your sense and your secret where only fools look for fun.”
“Mr. Intil,” I said decisively,” please sit down! As you know my work, you know my method is aboveboard as chess.”
He drew a chair and sat on the edge, watching his beloved copy.
I went on, “You know, therefore, that there are a number of basic tests to make. Anyone can work these out, but, as in chess, some people have a natural knack for eliminating at once the blind alleys.”
While I was saying this, I ran my eye through and across the lines. The born decoder, I've found, keeps his mind open, taking in the whole text. Then, if there is a clue, suddenly he'll see certain letters almost as though they were of slightly different type. These letters generally give him a start on the message. None of us, I believe, ever gets the code message straight offâit glimmers through too briefly and is gone; Any strain or pull and it sinks away. But that diagnostic dip has shown if there is a message, running through and under the disguised surface-sentenceâjust as a chess master sees there's a middle game and a “mate” standing out, if he can keep the path clear among all the possible other moves that lead nowhere.
But nothing came through to meânot a hint. To stop strain and keep fresh I raised my eyes. My visitor was looking to and from the paper, glancing at it and then at me.
“Haven't you gotten a clue?” he questioned.
I said nothing, but again gave that quick total glance. Then I was sure. Of one thing there could be no further question.
“Mr. Intil, this is no word code.”
“How do you know?”
“Why do you come to me unless you think I know?”
“But you haven't tried!”
“That's just what I have done.”
“You haven't worked at it!”
“How do you work to find if a bell is sound? Ring it. I've rung this. There's no letter code here.”
Before I could say more he'd reached over and pocketed his precious paper. “Then you're just a fraud,” he snapped, “Mr. Sydney Silchester!”
Yes, I'm Mr. Sydney Silchester, whose sole distinctions were that he liked honey and being left alone, and so, quietly living on the rim of life, was nearly pushed over the edge by his honey dealer. How, then, did I get into the position where Mr. Intil thought it worth while to call on me, and I to receive him? I suppose that concerted bee-drive must have roused me. They say ordinary bee stings are good for rheumatism. All I know is that after that escape I'd had from being stung to death, I found myself unable to settle down again.
Not that I moved at once. Like those prickly sea-urchins, I'd not only kept people at bay, I'd actually sunk right in and become embedded. But though my daily round went on outwardly undisturbed, my mind was steadily dragging its anchors. The first sign was that I began quite methodically to do puzzles. Indeed, I've several times since noted, that may be the first symptom that a mind is going to come out of its shell. It's a sort of attempt, I believe, still to keep asleep. We feel that if we thought about anything real it would be too hard and sharp. So when our minds want to think on anything for long and tire of being distracted, we try to put them off with artificial problems. We give them knots which people have tied on purpose for them to untieâfor fear they might otherwise start untying the knots which would let the cat out of the bag. Then, of course, as all puzzles go according to plan, it gets more amusing to be the knottier. That leads straight on to teaching knot-tiers, to writing guides to disguises. When you reach that point, you begin to look about for more material to work on. You want a lock meant to resist any but the secret key. You become a decoder.
So, by steps almost unnoticed by myself, I found that my mind had bored its way out of the shell I had built for myself. I was still careful enough not to make actual local acquaintances, but I did enter into correspondence on my special subject and became, in that special world, fairly well known. Much of my work began to lie across the Atlantic. Finally there came a conference in the States which I was asked to attend. There I should meet several experts in this queer little field in which my mind seemed determined to stay and feed, and, maybe, grow. The long and the short of it was that I crossed the Atlantic and, as one might say, while my back was turned Europe blew up.
Several riddle-colleagues pointed out that as money could no longer reach me I had better make some; what is more, that I could quite easily. So, with a little good-will, or interest, or whatever one calls it, I found myself with a small office and quite a considerable and growing mail-and-personal-visit business. I had been advised to settle in some place where money was freely made, where odd fancies could be cultivated and odd interests congregated. Those three requirements are not frequently found combined. Maybe no place in the world combines them to quite the degree to which they may be found in the wide district called Los Angelesâ“âThe largest city limits in the world,' and certainly an urbanity which tolerates more variety than any other town,” I was told. So to “L.A.” I went and found the forecast accurate. I became quite a busy man, seeing sometimes as many as a dozen or even a score of clients a day and keeping an amanuensis who was mistress of my mails and helped me with postal inquiries and the placing of my interviews, and so on.
Perhaps some people will say that this sort of work not only improved my prospects but also mended my manners. I don't know about that. All I know is that, if a client interested me, I would stand a great deal more from him (both for the fee and also for the interest) than I'd ever have stood from anyone before. That is why I stood Mr. Intil's onrushes. Why I did more is perhaps harder to explain. In itself, maybe, it was a hunch. Perhaps it was being rapped on my professional knucklesâperhaps the fact that we who use
hunch and analysis are always a little ashamed of our “starter,” prevented me from bowing my rude intruder out. He was pretty certainly a bit crazy, but then what about many of one's clients, what about my own profession and the way my gift works? And he certainly somehow held my attention.