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The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder
Table of Contents
About The Book
A boy with synesthesia—a condition that causes him to see colors when he hears sounds—tries to uncover what happened to his beautiful new neighbor—and if he was ultimately responsible in this “compelling and emotionally charged mystery that warrants comparisons to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Library Journal).
In this highly original “fantastic debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), thirteen-year-old Jasper Wishart lives in a world of dazzling color that no one else can see, least of all his dad. Words, numbers, days of the week, people’s voices—everything has its own unique shade. But recently Jasper has been haunted by a color he doesn’t like or understand: the color of murder.
Convinced he’s done something terrible to his neighbor, Bee Larkham, Jasper revisits the events of the last few months to paint the story of their relationship from the very beginning. As he struggles to untangle the knot of untrustworthy memories and colors that will lead him to the truth, it seems that there’s someone else out there determined to stop him—at any cost.
Full of page-turning suspense and heart-wrenching poignancy—as well as plenty of humor—The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder is “completely original and impossible to predict” (Benjamin Ludwig, author of Ginny Moon) with a unique hero who will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
Bee Larkham’s murder was ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged silver icicles.
That’s what I told the first officer we met at the police station, before Dad could stop me. I wanted to confess and get it over and done with. But he can’t have understood what I said or he forgot to pass on the message to his colleague who’s interviewing me now.
This man’s asked me questions for the last five minutes and twenty-two seconds that have nothing to do with what happened to my neighbor, Bee Larkham, on Friday night.
He says he’s a detective, but I’m not 100 percent convinced. He’s wearing a white shirt and gray trousers instead of a uniform and we’re sitting on stained crimson sofas, surrounded by cream-colored walls. A mirror’s on the wall to my left and a camera’s fixed in the right-hand corner of the ceiling.
They don’t interrogate criminals in here, not adult ones anyway. Toys sit on a shelf, along with an old Top Gear annual and a battered copy of the first Harry Potter book that looks like some kid tried to eat it. If this is supposed to put me at ease, it’s not working. The one-armed clown is definitely giving me the evil eye.
Would you describe yourself as happy at school, Jasper?
Are you friends with any Year Eleven boys?
Do you know anything about boys visiting Bee Larkham’s house for music lessons?
Did Miss Larkham ask you to deliver messages or gifts to any boys, for example, Lucas Drury?
Do you understand what condoms are used for?
The last question’s funny. I’m tempted to tell the detective that condom wrappers look like sparkly sweets, but I recently learnt the correct answer.
It’s SEX: a bubble-gum pink word with a naughty lilac tint.
Again, what does that have to do with Bee and me?
Before the interview began, this man told us his name was Richard Chamberlain.
Like the actor, he said.
I haven’t got a clue who the actor Richard Chamberlain is. Maybe he’s from one of Dad’s favorite U.S. detective TV shows—Criminal Minds or CSI. I don’t know the color of that actor’s voice, but this Richard Chamberlain’s voice is rusty chrome orange.
I’m trying to ignore his shade, which mixes unpleasantly with Dad’s muddy ocher and hurts my eyes.
* * *
This morning, Dad got a phone call asking if he could bring me down to the station to answer some questions about Bee Larkham—the father of one of her young, male music students has made some serious allegations against her. His colleagues plan to interview her too, to get her side of the story.
I wasn’t in any trouble, Dad stressed, but I knew he was worried.
He came up with the idea of us taking in my notebooks and paintings. We would tell the police that I stand at my bedroom window with binoculars, watching the parakeets nesting in Bee Larkham’s oak tree. And about how I keep a record of everything I see out of my window.
It’s important the police think we’re cooperating, Jasper, and not attempting to hide anything.
I didn’t want to take any chances, so I stacked seventeen key paintings and eight boxes of notebooks—all filed correctly, their boxes labeled in date order—by the front door.
I hated the thought of them all together in one confined dark place: the boot of Dad’s car. What if the car crashed and burst into flames? My records would be destroyed. I helpfully suggested we divide the boxes and travel in two separate taxis to the police station, like members of the Royal Family who aren’t allowed to travel together on one plane.
Dad vetoed this and muttered: “It might be a good thing if these boxes did go up in flames.”
I screamed glistening aquamarine clouds with sharp white edges at Dad until he promised never to harm my notebooks or paintings. But the damage was done and I couldn’t shake his threat or the colors out of my head; they mixed spitefully behind my eyes. I couldn’t bear to look at Dad or think about the terrible things he was capable of doing.
What he had done already.
Returning to the den in the corner of my bedroom, I rubbed the buttons on Mum’s cardigan until I felt calmer. When I crawled out again, twenty-nine minutes later, Dad had packed the car without me. He’d replaced some of my numbered boxes containing records of the people on this street with much older ones from the loft.
You’ve made a mistake, I told him. These are my notebooks from years ago, listing Star Wars characters and merchandise.
Dad said not to worry; the police would probably still be interested in the range of my work, and the selection of notebooks could help distract them.
I disliked his explanation. Worse still, when I looked closer in the boot, I realized he’d put box number four on top of box number six.
“Number four’s carrot orange and sneaky!” I said. “It can’t go on top of dusky pink and friendly number six. They don’t even remotely belong together! How can you not know that by now?”
I wanted to add: Why can’t you see what I can see?
There was no point, there never is. Dad’s blind to a lot of things, particularly involving me. When I was little it was always Mum who understood my colors. But Mum’s gone now and Dad doesn’t want to know.
He let me go back inside so I could spin on the chair in the kitchen rather than run to my den again. We didn’t have time, but we both knew I had to avoid more upset. I felt like an actor, walking around in the shoes belonging to me—Jasper Wishart—ever since the night Bee Larkham . . .
I couldn’t go there. Not yet.
I had to get the long, snaky ticker tape in my head in order. It had tangled up, with vital bits damaged or jumbled together. I couldn’t figure out how to rejig what had happened back into place.
Being late freaked me out even more. Dad said it’d be OK and not to worry, but that’s what he says whenever we get late-payment reminders for our electricity bills. I’m not sure I can trust his judgment anymore.
After I’d double-checked my boxes were settled in the boot, we made sure our seat belts were fastened, because people are thirty times more likely to be thrown from a vehicle if they’re not wearing one.
When we finally arrived, we were fifteen minutes and forty-three seconds late. The desk sergeant told us this wasn’t a problem and we should take a seat, a detective would see us soon.
The desk sergeant’s voice was light copper. I tried not to giggle at the irony. No one else in the police station would understand the joke, apart from Dad, who wouldn’t laugh. He doesn’t find my colors funny.
I longed to fly around the waiting room like a parakeet. Instead, I folded my arms tight and pretended I was a normal thirteen-year-old boy. I stared at my watch. Counting.
Five minutes, fourteen seconds.
The door beeped open, light grayish turquoise circles, and a man in a gray suit came out and shook Dad’s hand without glancing at me.
“Hello, Detective,” Dad said. “Are you in charge of the investigation into Bee and these boys?”
The man took Dad aside and spoke quietly in muted gray-white lines. He didn’t talk to me or stare.
I overheard Dad tell the detective he doubted I could help because I don’t recognize people’s faces. Something to do with my profound learning difficulties, Dad suspected. He’ll get that assessed at some point.
Did the detective still want to go ahead with the interview? It could be a waste of everyone’s time.
“Jasper sees colors and shapes for all sounds too, but that’s not much use to anyone either,” Dad added.
How dare he say that? It’s useful to me because the distinctive colors of people’s voices help me recognize them. Plus, it’s not just useful, it’s wonderful—something Dad will never understand.
My life is a thrilling kaleidoscope of colors only I can see.
When I look out of my bedroom window, chaffinches serenade me with sugar-mouse pink trills from the treetops and indignant blackbirds create light turquoise lines that make me laugh.
When I lie in bed on Saturday mornings, Dad bombards me with electric greens, deep violets, and unripe raspberries from the radio in the kitchen.
I’m glad I’m not like most other teenage boys because I get to see the world in its full multicolored glory. I can’t tell people’s faces apart, but I see the color of sounds and that is so much better.
I was desperate to tell this police officer that while he and Dad can see hundreds of colors, I see millions.
But there are also terrible colors in this world that no one should ever have to witness. Since Friday night I haven’t been able to get some of these ugly tints out of my head, however hard I try.
I longed to disobey Dad and tell this detective that whenever I close my eyes at night the palette becomes even more vivid, more brutal.
That’s because I can’t stop seeing the color of murder.
Reading Group Guide
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Thirteen-year-old Jasper Wishart lives in a dazzling world of color that no one else can see, least of all his dad. Words, numbers, days of the week, people’s voices—everything has its own unique shade. But recently Jasper has been haunted by a color he doesn’t like or understand: the color of murder.
Convinced he’s done something terrible to his new neighbor, Bee Larkham, Jasper revisits the events of the last few months to paint the story of their relationship from the very beginning. As he struggles to untangle the knot of untrustworthy memories and colors that will lead him to truth, it seems that there’s someone else out there determined to stop him—at any cost.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Jasper believes that his father will never understand his synesthesia, how his life is a “thrilling kaleidoscope of colors” only he can see. Why do you think his father appears unsupportive of Jasper’s unique ability? How does this affect their relationship, especially when compared with the connection Jasper shared with his mother?
2. Why do you think Jasper has such an attachment to the parakeets and to birds in general?
3. The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder presents an especially unusual mystery: the protagonist claims he is the one who murdered Bee Larkham—but this is neither explicitly confirmed nor denied until the end of the story. Did you believe his claim at the beginning of the novel? Did your suspicions shift throughout? What other characters did you suspect and why?
4. How does the out-of-order sequence of the book affect the reading experience? Do you think the story would have been weakened if it had been told chronologically?
5. “Good and bad aren’t stamped on pupil’s foreheads to help me sift through their identical uniforms.” How does Jasper distinguish good from bad in the people he meets? Talk about the qualities that Jasper considers likable and comfortable versus unlikable.
6. Jasper associated his mother with cobalt blue and Bee Larkham with sky blue. Why do you think Jasper might have initially associated Bee Larkham with the same color as his mother (albeit different shades)?
7. “I’m a reluctant witness, a reluctant helper—the roles I’m used to playing,” Jasper thinks. Do you agree? How might the accuracy of this claim change throughout the book? Can you relate to Jasper’s feelings in your own life?
8. Discuss the passage from Alice in Wonderland that Bee reads at the grave of the baby parakeet: “First, however, she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.” Jasper thinks: “I couldn’t remember Alice in Wonderland saying this. It didn’t sound significant to me,” but it clearly carries great emotional weight for Bee. What do you think it meant to her? How else might it relate to the events of the book?
9. “‘The police wouldn’t believe a word you said. You’re what they call an unreliable witness,’” Bee Larkham tells Jasper. Do you agree? How might his face blindness and synesthesia affect this—for better or for worse?
10. Jasper thinks: “Bee Larkham and I were equally guilty, but I was probably more guilty than her.” Do you believe this is accurate? Also consider discussing the Animal Farm quote Jasper cites above in relation to the book: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
11. Near the end of the book, Jasper remembers a “boys’ camping trip to Cumbria two years ago” with his father, who calls it a “fantastic holiday,” but Jasper remembers it very differently. What does this tell you about their relationship? Is there an experience in your life that you remember differently from someone you shared it with?
12. “I realize now how much Dad sounded like Bee Larkham when we argued over my Darth Sidious rucksack in his bedroom. ‘Do it as a favor for me Jasper. Can you do that for me?’” Why do you think Jasper makes this connection? How do these requests differ in nature?
13. Why do you think Bee planted her diary in Jasper’s room?
14. Did your opinion of Bee change after learning about her history? Is so, discuss how.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Jasper is not alone in his affection for the color blue. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is all about the color blue, including history, color theory, observations from various philosophers and writers, and Nelson’s own relationship with the color. Consider reading this book and discussing it with your book club.
2. Look up the work of Chuck Close, an artist who, like Jasper, suffers from face blindness. Close paints portraits to help him cope with his affliction. What do you notice?
3. There’s no shortage of artistic synesthetes, including Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams, Duke Ellington, Vladimir Nabokov, David Hockney, and more. Look up the work of these individuals and research others. What do you notice?
4. A quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is the epigraph and the book is featured prominently in the plot. Consider reading Alice with your book club and discussing why you think Harris chose to include it. See if you can find more parallels in it to The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder other than the ones explicitly mentioned. Be sure to also research Lewis Carroll; he was posthumously accused of being a pedophile due to his close relationships with young children—most notably with Alice Liddell, who inspired his most famous character.
5. Crime TV shows are frequently referenced throughout the book and serve as models of what Jasper expects to happen in the murder investigation. Watch an episode or two of shows such as CSI and examine the archetypes and roles they portray. How do they compare with the events of Harris’s book, and how do they affect our perceptions of crime and punishment?
A Conversation with Sarah J. Harris
Can you talk about what inspired you to write a story about a person with synesthesia and face blindness? What kind of research did you conduct in order to write the character of Jasper so vividly?
I’ve been interested in synesthesia and face blindness for many years, after coming across the conditions during my work as an education journalist. The central idea for the book eventually came to me in a dream: a scared young boy running across a suburban street at night, terrified by the colors he had just witnessed, the colors of murder. I carried out extensive research into synesthesia and face blindness to help me write the book—interviewing experts in the UK and people with both conditions across the world. I had assistance from many synesthetes in the United States and remain a member of Sean Day’s world-famous Synesthesia List (http://www.daysyn.com/Synesthesia-List.html). I’m also a member of the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists.
How did you choose the colors that Jasper sees for each word, number, or other element of his life—the “yellow French fries” of David Gilbert’s dog, the “toothpaste white” of Wednesday, the “bubble-gum pink with a naughty lilac tint” of sex and of course, the “sky blue” of Bee Larkham?
I interviewed synesthetes about their colors for a wide variety of sounds—such as voices, footsteps, doors closing, and birds singing—and everyone had distinct colors for the sounds. I decided to develop my own color code and make sure it was consistent, so if footsteps outdoors were dark charcoal–colored one day, they wouldn’t be bright violet the next. I kept huge grids, detailing the colors of every sound I used in the book by theme—for example, voice colors, street sounds, parakeet songs, etc.—to help keep track of them. I also tried to imagine the colors from a child’s perspective and think of words he would be most likely to use, such as in relation to foods and everyday items. To me, Wednesday seemed as fresh as white toothpaste, hope was as bright as tomato ketchup, and sex was a sweet bubble-gum pink. I imagined the barks of David Gilbert’s dog to be unpleasant to Jasper’s ears—sharp splinters of a yellow color he disliked but again, in relation to food. I knew that Bee Larkham’s voice must be a beautiful shade of blue that was similar to his mum’s cobalt blue.
This is your first story for adults, but you chose a child as a protagonist. Why did you make this decision? What was the experience like writing for an adult audience rather than a YA one?
After my dream, I knew this story had to belong to Jasper. I remembered his terror as he ran across the street, and it felt far worse that a child had experienced this trauma than an adult. I could also see Jasper very clearly in my head, standing at a window and watching birds through binoculars, and struggling with his face blindness daily at school.
When the idea initially came to me about Jasper’s character, I didn’t know whether I would be writing another YA novel or an adult one. As I wrote, it became clear to me that this was an adult book due to the themes I wanted to develop further. It also meant that I could write a longer book than I would do for YA, and use stronger language in places, which was in keeping with some of my characters. I was writing out of contract at the time, so I found the whole experience very liberating. I could write whatever I wanted and Jasper’s story was the only one I ever wanted to tell.
Similarly, what helps you tap into the world of childhood to render such believable characters and settings? While Jasper has an unusual gift, many of his experiences feel familiar and relatable. Did any of your own memories or experiences make it into the book?
I have vivid memories from my own childhood, which definitely help when I write from a child’s perspective. I also visit schools as an author and get to speak to children and young people regularly. I could definitely relate to Jasper’s feeling like an outsider at school, as I was also bullied. In my early years, school was an ordeal and I dreaded going every day. Like Jasper, there was a bully who used to wait for me at the school gate and I used to run home to get away from him. Taking up martial arts as an adult has helped boost my confidence and I’m now a black belt in karate.
You’ve also worked as a journalist, specializing in education reporting. What skills from journalism are useful to writing fiction? Did reporting help you develop Jasper’s keen observational voice?
Working as a journalist has taught me to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again—also to meet tight deadlines. I worked for many years as a general news reporter before specializing in education, and I needed to be able to describe different scenes for newspaper readers. That skill certainly helped me to develop Jasper’s character. I’m still very observant and carry a notebook around. I write down interesting descriptions of places, people, and snatches of conversations that I could possibly use in my books.
Did you grow up in a suburban neighborhood like Vincent Gardens? What inspired you to set the story there?
I grew up in a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood, and from my sister’s front bedroom window I could see into other people’s houses. All the children played together on the street and the mums socialized at weekly coffee mornings. Growing up, it seemed idyllic to me. But I learnt from my parents later that we effectively lived in a goldfish bowl and secrets from inside the other houses eventually spilled out—from raging rows and marital breakdown to depression and even suicide. I live in a suburban neighborhood now with my husband and two young sons and often wonder about the secrets behind all those closed doors. It seemed like a perfect location for my novel, where my characters must fiercely protect their own secrets.
Crime TV shows are constantly referenced throughout the novel. Are you a fan of these shows yourself?
I’m a huge fan of crime TV shows and movies and watch a lot—Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Sherlock, Department Q, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, The Fall—too many more to mention! I also love reading crime thrillers.
What inspired you to weave Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into your story? Did you have it in mind from the beginning, or did you find a connection later in the writing process?
When I imagined Bee Larkham’s first meeting with Jasper, I originally pictured her wearing a hair band like Alice’s. I thought there was something almost childlike about Bee, a quality that would appeal to Jasper. The hair band could also help him remember her appearance. The more I thought about the Alice hair band, the more the themes and characters from Alice in Wonderland sprang to mind. I wanted to weave them in somehow, and the imagery eventually replaced the hair band. It also seemed particularly fitting in relation to Bee, given the background of Lewis Carroll and his well-documented obsession with Alice Liddell. The reading that Bee gives at the baby parakeet’s funeral is at the heart of the Alice in Wonderland references. I found it terribly sad and poignant, reflecting Bee’s quiet desperation.
In Bee Larkham, you’ve created a character who is both contemptible and sympathetic, both a villain and a victim. Or as Jasper thinks: “She was good and bad and thousands of shades in between.” What was it like writing such a complex character? How did you strike the balance between the two sides of her?
I enjoy writing complex characters because people are complex in real life—they don’t fit into neat, convenient boxes. Everyone has faults. Yes, Bee Larkham does terrible things, particularly to Jasper and Lucas, which I would never condone. But I don’t believe she’s a one hundred percent “bad person,” with no redeeming features. I tried to show that, despite her flaws, she also has good points—she’s mostly kind to Jasper and considers him her only kindred spirit on the street, despite eventually using him for her own purposes. She’s also a victim herself and has never been truly loved, supported, or protected as a child. She wants to feel loved, but looks for love in entirely the wrong places. I think it’s okay to feel sorry for Bee and be utterly repulsed by her manipulative, exploitative behavior.
This book takes many twists and turns and Bee Larkham’s murderer can easily be many people throughout the book. Did you always know who it was going to be?
When I first gained the idea for my book, I didn’t know who had murdered Bee Larkham or why. All the characters in my head had very good motives for wanting her dead. But when I started to write, two characters in particular jumped out at me as being the likely culprit. As my word count grew, so did my certainty about the identity of the killer.
What do you think is next for Jasper and his father?
I think Jasper and his father will build a happy, fulfilling future together now that they have truly bonded. Ed Wishart has accepted Jasper for who he is and will no longer try to force him to “act normal.” Jasper has learnt that he can rely on his father and be completely true to himself in his company. By the end of the book, Jasper has allowed his father to experience his love of mixing colors and painting for the first time and hasn’t been rejected or chastised. Their relationship is like the cobalt blue on Jasper’s bedroom wall—it’s optimistically bright and will withstand the test of time.
What do you hope will resonate most for readers about this novel?
Hopefully, the message will resonate with readers that we all perceive the world very differently and that diversity is a wonderful thing. It’s okay to be different and to accept others who are. We shouldn’t have to try to conform to society’s image of “normal.” What is normal anyway? We often confuse normal with average and who wants to be average?
Are you working on anything new? Can you tell us about it?
I’m working on a new adult novel. I can’t say too much about it at this stage, but it explores the aftermath of a tragic accident involving a child. I’m currently researching serious head injuries, comas, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I also have lots of ideas for other adult novels and YA books bubbling away in the back of my mind.
- Publisher: Atria Books (February 5, 2019)
- Length: 368 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501187902
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Raves and Reviews
Funny and tragic and brave… a beautiful, original novel.
– Sarah Pinborough, New York Times bestselling author of Behind Her Eyes
I’ve never read anything like this. Completely original, and impossible to predict. I loved this book.
– Benjamin Ludwig, author of Ginny Moon
An original novel: poignant, engaging, at times suspenseful and even comic. It takes real skill to create a consistently credible child narrator, but I believed in 13-year-old Jasper and his confounding world. A triumph.
– Sarah Vaughan, author of Anatomy of a Scandal
Jasper—whose world is both more colorful and more frightening than ours—is a character who will stay with me for some time. Harris has written a literary page turner that utterly captivated me. A stunning debut.
– Cass Green, bestselling author of The Woman Next Door and In a Cottage in a Wood
I found myself not just drawn but expertly daubed in to Jasper's world, with its splattered sense of morals and innocence.
– James Hannah, author of The A-Z of You and Me
In this fantastic debut, Harris enters the technicolor mind of 13-year-old Jasper Wishart… Readers enamored of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Rosie Project will delight in Harris’s sparkling novel.
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
A compelling and emotionally charged mystery that warrants comparisons to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
– Library Journal
“Sarah J. Harris has written an insightful character study with a terrific mystery alongside. Or maybe it’s a terrific mystery chaperoned by a compelling, heartbreaking, insightful narrator. Take your pick. Either way, it’s a great story, hard to put down and beautifully told.”
– Laurie Frankel, author of This Is How It Always Is
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