William Henley and Noble Jennings have been best friends since they were in an orphanage together. As adults, Noble is charged with murder. William, a successful attorney, defends his friend using the novel defense of early on-set dementia. Bee King is a tapestry loosely told through the framework of Noble's trial and from kaleidoscopic points of view.
The novel weaves together an ensemble of real and fictional characters that include Dr. Alois Alzheimer; Dr. Levi Solomon Fuller, the first black American psychiatrist; Peggy Fuller, a journalist who publishes her crime reporting under a male pseudonym; Sarah, a mulatto woman who cares for her brain damaged mother; Tammany Hall racists; Jenny Big Stink, a drug dealing fish peddler; Lonny Massacre, a serial killer; and more. Their struggles and successes intertwine to tell Noble's story, as well as their own.
As vivid as the characters are in Bee King, lower Manhattan and the cultural and social history of five decades stand as three-dimensional characters on their own. Abraham Lincoln fights to end slavery. Immigrants volley to make livings in the narrow and crowded thoroughfares. Doctors must help patients without proper tools. Psychological breakthroughs have not yet arrived. The streets are alive, and they are glorious and dangerous.