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.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murderincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sarah J. Harris. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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.
Sarah J. Harris is an author and freelance education journalist who regularly writes for national British newspapers. She is the author of the young adult series Jessica Cole: Model Spy, written under her pen name, Sarah Sky. She lives in London with her husband and two young children. The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder is her first adult novel.
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