As a lover of plot twists that defy the predictability of Hollywood and backstory that is delivered in bite-sized portions, I was thrilled to discover Sarah J. Harris’ debut novel, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder. I found myself drawn to the alluring cover—the title smeared in eye-popping colors above an adolescent boy, who stares up at the night sky—but I was immersed by the dramatic storytelling that offered a new revelation at the end of each chapter.
The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder opens with the title character already murdered, but the novel concludes with the history of Bee and the other residents of Vincent Gardens. At the center of the police’s investigation is Jasper Wishart, a thirteen-year-old autistic boy who can see the colors and shapes of sounds and words. Jasper cannot remember faces so it is by the colors of people’s voices that Jasper recognizes individuals such as Rusty Chrome Orange (Detective Richard Chamberlain) or Sky Blue (Bee Larkham). As Jasper explains: “It’s useful to me because the distinctive colors of people’s voices help me recognize them” (5); “I’m not wrong,” I say, coughing dark sapphire blue. “About the color of voices. Even when they trick me. I see through them. Eventually” (338).
It is through Jasper’s literal and colorful perspective that Harris’s story is articulated. Jasper, who is also logical and blunt, does not grasp idioms and other figures of speech such as when Jasper’s father tells David Gilbert, one of Jasper’s neighbors, not to beat himself up over Bee’s unfortunate childhood; Jasper thinks: “Dad’s right. David Gilbert never beat anyone up” (346). These literal interpretations lead to both awkward and amusing misunderstandings between Jasper and the other characters. With Jasper as narrator, we see the story play out through his eyes and follow him as he tries to paint the events that led up to Bee’s murder and what really happened on the night of April eighth.
This perspective is crucial to Harris’s storytelling as Jasper observes the world around him rather than interacting with it as some colors and shapes are overwhelming to him. Some of these overwhelming colors and shapes are created by dogs such as Lucas Drury’s dog, otherwise deemed as obnoxious “reddish orange triangles” (233). Jasper, armed with his binoculars, notices and records not only his beloved parakeets that have taken up residence at Bee’s place but also what happens in Vincent Gardens through his paintings and journal entries. Because of his involvement with Bee and his dedication to the parakeets, Jasper cannot stop seeing the color of Bee Larkham’s murder: “ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged silver icicles” (1).
As I followed Jasper’s perspective, I did see not just an autistic teen but a misunderstood youth plagued by social awkwardness. Harris, like with many other elements of the story, uses implicit language and relies on the reader’s own intellect to make assertions about the characters. Jasper seems to be a reliable narrator, even when he clearly states that he stabbed Bee Larkham to death. I accept Jasper’s word as fact (because why would such a straight-forward character lie to us?) as this is the only detail that he is certain of. I was still left begging to know why and how Bee and Jasper’s friendship got to this point.
Nevertheless, I gradually began to doubt Jasper because of his condition and since the “fact” that the book begins with is eventually proven false. Is Jasper as smart as I believe him to be? Is he really seeing events play out as they really happened or are we only seeing a filtered version? Did he really stab Bee Larkham or did something happen to make him believe he killed Bee? As any good mystery novel should do, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder refutes the truths it first presents the reader with and only paints the whole picture of the crime in the last chapters.
Written in “the tradition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (as mentioned on the inner book cover), Harris’s work is a thrilling read that can be enjoyed in multiple sittings, yielding another overlooked detail each time. The author’s inclusion of synesthesia also adds to the reader’s enjoyment as the pages become a canvas of both written words and colorful visuals. Despite Jasper seeing people and events within clear black and white moral lines, Harris’s characters, from Bee Larkham to David Gilbert, are saturated in grey which makes them realistic and intriguing studies. Jasper’s bright and colorful world contrasts with this grey beautifully.
Even though Jasper himself is straight-forward in his narrative, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder is full of detours and false leads that are presented with each character. In order to arrive at the truth, Jasper has to confront his own memory by painting the colors and shapes of every meeting with Bee. With each painting, Jasper comes closer to the truth and further away from his own truth. Friends become malicious enemies and enemies become unexpected friends. Each brushstroke eventually leads us to the ultimate revelation: who killed Bee Larkham.
Harris, Sarah J. The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder. Touchstone, 2018.