Yesterday I spent some quality time with Susan Rice, who died Monday. Here’s what happened:
I was sorting out some of the voluminous Sherlockian material that Carolyn Senter generously gave me recently. I’ve called it my inheritance from her late husband, Joel. One of the items that popped out at me was Susan Rice’s book called A Compound of Excelsior.
It’s an attractive little volume, published by Gasogene Press in 1991, with a line drawing of a bee on every page. Reading it is to engage with the brilliant mind of Susan Rice. Within a few pages, I was enthralled – even though I have no special interest in the topic of bees, beekeeping, or the literature thereof.
Susan was a wonderful writer – elegant, intelligent, and humorous. An excerpt will not do her justice, but I was particularly struck by these lines:
Only in the past decade or two have scientists become convinced she [the queen bee] mates many times, perhaps between ten and twenty. The queen bee may seem to us more mechanical than admirable, but it is impossible not to appreciate her achievement. For thousands of years she has kept what’s private, private.
But, of course, the book is as much about Sherlock Holmes as it is about bees. The central mystery of the book is why he retired so early. Susan found the solution in the preface to His Last Bow, where Watson mentions Holmes as “somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism.” There it is – bee stings are well known to cure rheumatism! That’s why Holmes retired at a little shy of 50 years old, and why became a beekeeper.
Just seven months ago, Susan sent me a superb essay on Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet” for a book I edited, which I hope will be published by the end of the year. Along with it, she supplied a short biography which is perhaps indicative of what she thought important about her life – especially its final sentence:
Susan Rice, ASH (“A Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen”), BSI (“Beeswing”), first met Holmes and Watson 65 years ago, and eight years later attended her first scion meeting. Since then she’s been very active in the Sherlockian cosmos, writing roughly 70 papers for at least two dozen publications. She has spoken at various ASH and BSI Dinners and perhaps 30 conferences, including John Bennett Shaw symposia, Bob Thomalen’s Autumn in Baker Street, and Back to Baker Street, where she spoke at New Scotland Yard. Susan is the recipient of the Gaslight Award, the Morley-Montgomery Award, and the Musgrave Crown. She is the author of The Somnambulist and the Detective, about Vincent Starrett, and two other books. She was among the first six women invested in the BSI in 1991, and 12 years later received her second shilling. Her greatest reward, however, is a life of lasting friendships.
For more of Susan Rice in her own words, click here for a link to an interview with Rob Nunn.