The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote some hundred and twenty short stories, excluding the 56 Sherlock Holmes stories and the 17 or so Brigadier Gerard stories. The excellent Société Sherlock Holmes de France website estimates the total number of all Conan Doyle’s fictions as 239, for he also wrote some 20 short novels. His first story was published when he was 20, the last when he was 70.

For  boys

The overall affect is rip-roaring adventures for boys. None of them are really for adults, none of them have much psychology, much interiority, and the plots – though superficially gripping – are all wound up in a brisk few final paras. They anticipate hundreds of adventure movies and comics and graphic novels. They are short and punchy and great fun.

Reassuring

Even the horror and science fiction stories, though they ostensibly deal with the bizarre and grotesque, are ultimately reassuring because there is never any doubt as to the good sense and decency of the narrator(s). It is always a man and he is always soundly for the Empire and the natural fair play of the British, innately superior to all other nations and divinely ordained to rule vast tracts of the world and over their occasionally troublesome natives (and, quite often, over the great unwashed back here in Blighty).

Many of the stories exemplify that specially British sense of justice and fairmindedness which, in the mind of Imperialists, justified, indeed demanded, our Imperial role and which, similarly, justified the existence of a landed aristocracy with its Justices of the Peace, Lord Lieutenants and whatnot.

GM Young, historian of the Victorian era, writes about ‘the most precious element in Victorian civilisation, its robust and masculine sanity’, and Conan Doyle is a kind of quintessence of this, a charmingly unreflective, unquestioning, untroubled supporter of everything British.

Conan Doyle comes over as everyone’s favourite uncle, full of rattling good stories and anecdotes – but nobody for a minute takes any of his opinions seriously. He is Mr Chips.

Magazines

The stories were written for money to be published in the impressively wide variety of magazines which flourished in the 1890s. They were reprinted in numerous subsequent collections. One of the collections was titled Round the Fire Stories and that perfectly captures the Boy Scout ambience of so many of them.

The 1880s and 90s were a golden age of little magazines, created to feed the appetite of the middle and lower classes who had been taught to read as a result of the 1870 Education Act and its sequels, who increasingly had the means to buy cheap titles. Conan Doyle’s most effective outlet was the Strand magazine (established 1891), packed with articles, news and stories by leading writers of the day, all for the bargain price of one shilling in which he continued to publish to the end of  his career.

These magazines demanded sensational storylines, glamorous protagonists, short, sharp doses of the mysterious, the macabre, the haunting or the humorous, and this well-defined format and sensation-seeking audience should be kept in mind when reading Conan Doyle’s stories.

Themes

  • Patriotism ‘I do not go so far as to say that the English are more honest than any other nation, but I have found them more expensive to buy.’ (The Lost Specia’l) “He was a villain, but he was a Briton!” said the captain, at last. “He lived like a dog, but, by God, he died like a man!”‘ (The Slapping Sal) ‘No more striking example could be given of the long arm and steel hand of the British law than that within a few months this mixed crew, Sclavonian, negro, Manila men, Norwegian, Turk and Frenchman, gathered on the shore of the distant Argentine, were all brought face to face at the Central Criminal Court in the heart of London town.’ (The Tragedy of Flowery Land)
  • The British Empire The colonies, especially Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, are the playground of white men – the existence of the Empire goes without saying ie that native peoples should have their land taken and their goods stolen doesn’t occur. Vide his goodhumoured and openhanded pamphlets justifying the Second Boer War which don’t consider the possibility that the British might have been motivated solely by power politics and greed. In The Green Flag even mutinous Irish republicans, when faced with the fuzzy wuzzies, turn out to be the stoutest defenders of the British Empire.
  • London ‘…now gradually overtaken and surrounded by the red brick tentacles of the London octopus.’ It is always growing, throwing out everexpanding avenues of redbrick terraces. The ones we live in, now.
  • Women Chivalry is the way the patriarchy, men, reassured themselves that they deserved to be in charge, that it was OK to keep women in powerless subjugation. Chivalry was men’s reply to women demanding the vote or control of their own lives: look, we defer to you in everything sweet ladies, why on earth would you need the vote? ‘Ladies are in danger of losing their privileges when they usurp the place of the other sex. They cannot claim both.’ (Doctors of Hoyland) Women in Conan Doyle are tall, stately, and the most beautiful woman in England. Defending their ‘honour’ is the motivation for quite a few of the stories.
  • Diamonds seem to be the treasure and currency of choice, the bigger the better, and feature in his very first story, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley as well as The Stone of Boxman’s Drift, Our Midnight Visitor,  The Club-Footed Grocer.
  • Comedy A constant throughout is Conan Doyle’s bluff good humour. Rising to overt comedy in the GP reminiscences and Brigadier Gerard stories, or just lying low, purring in the background. Constantly, pervasively there is his confidence and solidity, as ubiquitous as his splendid Edwardian moustache.
  • Crime of the most sensational and puzzling sort, of course eg The Story of the Lost Special or The Story of the Lost Watches.
  • Sensation The stories were published in popular magazines which often contained sensational news or features. The stories take this tone from their surroundings. Nothing is subtle or underplayed. Everything is the most sensational scandal in London or England or the world. ‘Stanniford, the banker! I remembered the name at once. His flight from the country some seven years before had been one of the scandals and sensations of the time.’ (The Sealed Room) ‘Such was the position of affairs when, upon the evening of Monday, June 21st, there came a fresh development which changed what had been a mere village scandal into a tragedy which arrested the attention of the whole nation.’ (The Black Doctor). The same breathless sensationalism which characterises the Holmes stories.
  • Scandal and the fear of scandal is a motivation in these and the Holmes stories to a degree which is hard for us to understand. The reputation of upper middle class people was so important that they were willing to kill or die to preserve it. Just the hint that some misbehaviour in a former life abroad might revisit someone in respectable England causes numerous Conan Doyle protagonists to drop dead of horror. The Jew’s Breastplate is a particularly preposterous example of a story driven by this ludicrous sentiment.
  • Secret societies flourished in the 1880s and 1890s. They merged in the public  mind with terrorist groups such as nihilists, anarchists, Fenians, even the violent suffragettes. They are routinely offered as explanations when some crime, especially a murder, goes unsolved and were so familiar a subject that Conan Doyle can make a comic story about a chemist who is mistakenly invited to give a lecture about dynamite to a group of nihilists.
  • Murder plenty of people get murdered and the murders are horrible and yet, in some difficult-to-define way, romantic and exciting. They upset the characters – but they don’t upset us, because they are so transparently the engines of a rattling good yarn.
  • Horror The great horror trope of the pale ghastly face at the window occurs in scores of the stories – Uncle Jeremy’s Household, A Pastoral Horror – and melodramatic horror is one of the commonest emotions: ‘… and she realized, with a thrill of horror, that what she had taken to be a glove was the hand of a man, who was prostrate upon the floor.’

And now I come to that portion of my story which fills me even now with a shuddering horror when I think of it (The Striped Chest)

could be the epigraph to many of the collected stories.

The 1880s

  • The Mystery of Sasassa Valley (September 1879) ‘Tell it? Oh, certainly; but it is a longish story and a very strange one; so fill up your glass again, and light another cigar, while I try to reel it off’ sets the tone for the entire oeuvre. Jack Turnbull as an old man recalls how he and Lucky Tom Donahue, two young lawyers who packed in study to emigrate to South Africa, took their cue from a native tale of a haunted valley and discovered the weird glowing was given off not by demons but by diamonds!
  • The American’s Tale (December 1880) “Deuced rum yarn!” said young Sinclair. Hard core Western redneck Jefferson Adams regales a posh English literary club with a tall tale about a feud in 1870s Arizona between cool Brit called Scott and short-fused Alabama Joe which ends with Joe being eaten alive by a giant Venus flytrap plant!
  • A Night Among the Nihilists (April 1881) ‘”By the way,” he remarked, as we smoked a cigar over our wine, “we should never have known you but for the English labels on your luggage.”‘ Robinson, a clerk in a corn merchant’s, is sent to Russia to open up trade with a major landowner. There is a mix-up and he is introduced into a secret society of Nihilists and saved just as he is rumbled, when the police burst in!
  • That Little Square Box (December 1881) ‘Dick was just the man I wanted; kindly and shrewd in his nature, and prompt in his actions, I should have no difficulty in telling him my suspicions, and could rely upon his sound sense to point out the best course to pursue. Since I was a little lad in the second form at Harrow, Dick had been my adviser and protector.’ The narrator is a nervous, solitary, literary type who, when he boards the ship from Boston to London, overhears two foreign men whispering about a secret box and when to set it off, thinks he is hearing anarchist/terrorists. In fact, they are releasing racing pigeons!
  • The Gully of Bluemansdyke: A True Colonial Story (December 1881) ‘The two men lapsed into silence for some time, moodily staring into the glow of the fire, and pulling at their short clays.’ New Zealand in the 1850s. A posse is formed to hunt down seven men who bushwhacked the young sons of two old-timers. A paean to the rugged spirit of the emigrant colonial trooper. Trooper Braxton and his capture of the Bluemansdyke murderers. The Australia stories are linked.
Cover of The Gully of Bluemansdyke

Cover of The Gully of Bluemansdyke

  • Bones, The April Fool of Harvey’s Sluice (April 1882) Comic tale. ‘Boss, with the keen power of calculation which had made him the finest cricketer at Rugby in his day, had caught the rein immediately below the bit, and clung to it with silent concentration.’ Another tale of derring-do in the New Zealand outback, but lightened with romance and humour, as two English miners, posh John ‘Boss’ Morgan and herculean Abe ‘Bones’ Durton save the life of pretty young Miss Carrie Sinclair who transforms the life of mining shanty Harvey’s Sluice. ‘With these few broken words the strangely assorted friends shook hands and looked lovingly into each other’s eyes.’ Reminiscent of Paint Your Wagon. Climaxes with a big shootout as the pals save Miss Sinclair from bushrangers.
  • Our Derby Sweepstakes (May 1882) Two men compete for the hand of the fair Miss Eleanor Montague and decide the winner of the Derby will win her hand. Told in 1st person by Eleanor in an impersonation of a Victorian airhead.
  • That Veteran (September 1882) Very amusing. A gentleman on a walking holiday in Wales pulls into an inn where he is regaled with stories of the Crimean War and a soldier’s career by one sergeant Turnbull until his head is swimming and he passes out. The soldier is a fake, a criminal, who has drugged him and stolen his watch.
  • My Friend the Murderer (December 1882) A further New Zealand story: the prison doctor narrator (Conan Doyle/Watson) hears the life story of Maloney, the Bluemansdyke murderer who escaped the rope by turning queen’s evidence and had sundry adventures trying to escape revengers as he fled to Australia, England, France and then back to Oz where he finally dies in a bar brawl.
  • The Captain of the Polestar (January 1883) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice. (Interesting article about the story’s origins in Conan Doyle’s actual Arctic voyage aboard the whaler Hope.)
Illustration to the Captain of the Polestar

Illustration to the Captain of the Polestar

  • Gentlemanly Joe (March 1883) The narrator is a young man working at a bank along with four other blue-bloods and the vulgar, jumped-up son of a bookie who they ironically name Gentlemanly Joe. They mercilessly rib him, especially when he falls in love with little Miss Cissy who is in fact engaged to one of them. Then comes the night of the great fire when the Newsome house burns down and it is big strong Gentlemanly Joe who breaks down the door and rescues Miss Cissy. Though she marries her fiancee she and the others will never forget Gentlemanly Joe!
  • The Winning Shot (July 1883) A genuinely eerie supernatural story. One Octavius Gaster arrives at a charming upper class household in Dartmoor where Lottie Underwood is due to marry her sweetheart. He casts clouds over the gathering, defends spiritualism, has a newspaper cutting implicating him in black magic, falls in love with Lottie, which leads to a fight with Charley and he is evicted. Then the great shooting match between soldiers at locals where Gaster turns up and, at the climax of the match, appears to make Charley shoot through a phantasm of himself, killing himself. The spookiest thing is that after weeks of delirium Lottie is seen getting into a train with him.
  • Selecting a Ghost (December 1883) Comic story told by a preposterously pretentious narrator Mr d’Odd, a successful grocer who has bought a big old house and now wants a ghost to go with it so he asks his brother-in-law in London to find one, resulting in a crook from London coming down and pretending to be a purveyor of ghosts who audition for him as he drinks some magic potion. When he awakes, he has of course been robbed.
  • The Silver Hatchet (December 1883) ‘On the 3rd of December 1861, Dr. Otto von Hopstein, Regius Professor of Comparative Anatomy of the University of Budapest, and Curator of the Academical Museum, was foully and brutally murdered within a stone-throw of the entrance to the college quadrangle.’ Then another victim is found. Then the friendship of two medical students who stumble across a silver-handled ax and, as he holds it, one goes homicidally mad. They are arrested it and the police inspector handling it also becomes homicidal. It is cursed: ‘Ever evil, never good, Reddened with a loved one’s blood.’ The inclusion of the students makes it seem like the short melodramatic plot of an opera.
  • An Exciting Christmas Eve or, My Lecture on Dynamite (December 1883) Odd tone of tale about a short bespectacled Herr Doctor Otto von Spee to whom lots of accidents occur, the final one being kidnapped on Christmas Eve to deliver a lecture on gunpowder to a secret, presumably revolutionary, society which climaxes with some sample guncotton being detonated and Dr von Spee escaping.
  • J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement (January 1884) Remarkably powerful fiction which claims to be a true account of what happened on the Marie Celeste (discovered drifting December 1873): the boat is slowly taken over by an evil half-caste – Mr. Septimius Goring – who along with two black sailors murders all the white crew and passengers, steering to a remote African settlement where he lords it over the natives instead of to Portugal. When the natives see the lucky charm an old slave gave him in America their superstitious reverence forces Goring to set Jephson adrift and so be picked up by a passing ship.
Martha the old slave gives Jephson the stone ear

Martha the old slave gives Jephson the stone ear

  • The Heiress of Glenmahowley (January 1884) 1st person. Bob Elliott and John Vereker are two unsuccessful lawyers marooned in a pub in the west of Ireland, passing the time being unpleasantly racist about the locals when the publican tells them of a local widow who is fabulously wealthy and her beautiful young daughter the heiress. Comedy as both men pretend not to be interested but next day climb over the big spiked wall, tumbling into the ditch and scrambling through briars to try to woo and win the beauty. It is made plain he English narrator is a pompous preening twerp.
  • The Blood-Stone Tragedy: A Druidical Story (February 1884) The narrator begins to discuss the recent case of Williams the druid when the other man in the railway carriage says, Hush, don’t mention the word, it might wake my sleeping wife. And then proceeds to tell the story of  how his then fiancee got lost in the mountains and fell into the clutches of a maniac who thinks he is a druid and plans to sacrifice her at midnight.
  • John Barrington Cowles (April 1884) Longer and more psychologically penetrating than usual: the narrator’s friend falls for an ice cold beauty who is associated with two men who went mad, with cruelty to her dog, with tyranny over her mother, the daughter of a soldier in India who indulged in black magic. She beats a mesmerist at a public lecture and then, at the height of their engagement, she reveals something hideous to John Barrington Cowles. He raves that she is a werewolf. He goes down with brain fever and then is taken by the narrator to the Isle of May to recover. One night with a storm approaching, JBC hears her calling and runs to his death over a cliff.
  • The Cabman’s Story: the Mysteries of a London ‘Growler’ (May 1884) A London cabbie tells a few of his colourful experiences like carrying a corpse, and carrying a forger. Nice ventriloquism of the cabbie, similar to My Friend The Murderer.
  • The Tragedians (August 1884) Young Mr Barker the narrator enters the happy life of the Latour family in Paris, the widowed Madame, young Rose and brother Henry the would-be actor. In another part of town the famous actor and seducer of women Lablas wins at cards and plans the abduction of Rose. Barker and the brothers are walking home late when they encounter Lablas and accomplices abducting Rose. Fight. Broken up with the promise of a duel. And, as Henry had just got the role of Laertes opposite Hamlet, the duel is fought for real onstage in a scene which rises to real intensity and power.
Poster for The Winning Shot and An Actor's Duel (1894)

Poster for The Winning Shot and An Actor’s Duel (1894)

  • Crabbe’s Practice (December 1884) Pure comedy as two medical students cook up a fake drowning and electrical resuscitation to boost Crabbe’s practice.
  • The Man from Archangel (January 1885) 1st person. Lonely young scientist John M’Vittie inherits money and a barren stretch of property in Scotland to which he moves to carry out his obscure experiments. One stormy night a schooner is shipwrecked on the shore and, out of character, he rows out and saves a beautiful young damsel who doesn’t speak English. Days later a tall, brown-faced, red-shirted, leather-booted pirate-type comes snooping claiming the woman is his bride. But she hates him. He and his crew kidnapped her from her wedding.
  • The Lonely Hampshire Cottage (May 1885) 3rd person. Very moody landlord John Ranter is advised by his doctor to retire and moves to a remote cottage where he beats his wife and is a byword. Then a strange sailor appears, walking to Southampton, in need of a bed for the night. Ranter offers it and slowly unravels that the stranger has struck it rich in California and bears dollars and gold. In the middle of the night he creeps up the stairs to murder him but is caught by the stranger who reveals himself as Ranter’s runaway son.
  • The Great Keinplatz Experiment (July 1885) Professor von Baumgarten is an expert on mesmerism and spiritualism and carries out an experiment with his daughter’s fiance and his student, Fritz von Hartmann, to see if souls leave the body during hypnosis. They do, but re-enter the wrong bodies, the professor’s soul entering the student’s body and vice versa, with hilarious consequences. Played for laughs, this reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy short.
  • The Parson of Jackman’s Gulch (December 1885) 1853 in this rough mining settlement 150 miles from Ballarat when a pastor arrives and wins over the miners by reading the Bible whenever they blaspheme. His campaign climaxes with the first ever sermon in the back of the pub where he proceeds to lock them in and reveal himself to be the noted bushranger Conky Jim while his partners rob the assay office of its entire haul of gold.
  • The Fate of the Evangeline (December 1885) 1st person. John Vincent Gibbs reveals the true story behind the loss of the ‘Evangeline’, namely that, rejected in love he had become an anchorite on a remote Scottish island when who should turn up but his erstwhile fiancee, mercenary father and calculating suitor, all of whom he overhears, before swimming out to the yacht Miss Lucy is sleeping aboard, cutting the painter and absconding with her. The schooner is run down in the Irish Sea by a freighter bound for Australia where they make a new life and, ultimately, write this ‘true account’. Quotes the Scotsman quoting Poe’s detective Dupin about eliminating the impossible etc.
  • Touch and Go: A Midshipman’s Story (April 1886) 1st person. It is 1868 and the narrator was a lad of 14 back on the banks of the river Clyde from his first journey as a seaman. He, his sister and cousin fool old Jock their minder and take a sailing boat out for a pleasure run alone and on impulse decide to sail to the mouth of the river where a storm pushes them out into the Irish Sea. Caught in heavy waters they are like to drown when they are rescued by a steam launch, dried and slept and dropped on the beach of the Isle of Man.
  • Cyprian Overbeck Wells : A Literary Mosaic (December 1886) 1st person. Humorous: the narrator Smith fancies himself a writer and after 10 years a clerk leaves his job to write a masterpiece, decides to read all English literature to give himself a boost: then one night hallucinates a tableful of the great novelists who proceed to tell a story in tag.
  • Uncle Jeremy’s Household (February 1887) 1st person. Long one. Student Hugh Lawrence goes to Dunklethwaite House in Yorkshire to stay with his friend John Thurston who is staying with old eccentric, poetry-obsessed Uncle Jeremy and the nanny, Miss Warrender, an attractive Indian young woman, orphan of a famous Indian chief, and Uncle J’s amanuensis, the tall creepy Copperthorne. Hugh becomes curious about the troubled relationship between secretary and nanny and puzzled by her sometimes savage demeanour until one night, he overhears their conversation in the greenhouse and discovers she is the daughter of a Thuggee leader, worships a goddess of murder, killed her adopted father’s daughter and the little girl Uncle J had adopted; and now they both plan to murder old Uncle J as the secretary has got himself named in the will. In the end a) Miss Warrender escapes having b) tasked a wandering Indian stranger in the village to murder Copperthorne.
  • The Stone of Boxman’s Drift  (December 1887) 3rd person. The early 1870s in the Vaal valley near Kimberley, South Africa, barren land except for the diamonds and therefore wild prospectors from all over the world. ‘Headley Dean, with his crisp, neatly-trimmed hair and beard, his quick, glancing eyes, and his nervous, impulsive ways, had something of the Celt, both in his appearance and in his manner. Eager, active, energetic, he gave the impression of a man who must succeed in the world, but who might be a little unscrupulous in his methods of doing so. Big Bill, on the other hand, quiet, unimpressionable, and easy-going, with a sweeping yellow beard and open Saxon countenance, may have had a stronger and deeper nature than his partner, but was inferior to him in fertility of resource, and in decision of character in all the minor matters of life. ‘ A morality tale whereby the Celt comes over selfish and greedy when they find a huge carbuncle. In their struggle it bounces into a bottomless pit. The dim Saxon reveals he had found it earlier and placed it for the Celt to discover, who is then covered in guilt and shame.
  • John Huxford’s Hiatus (June 1888) John works in a cork factory in Brisport which is forced to close down by competition from south America. He is offered a job in Canada and leaves his weeping fiancee, promising to write. Within days of arriving he is attacked and beaten over the head in a low dive. He recovers but has amnesia. He rises by hard work to be a rich man and, upon hearing Devon voices down at the docks, suddenly remembers everything. He sails over the sea and is reunited with his sweetheart who has stayed true to him these past seventy years.

The 1890s

  • The Ring of Thoth (January 1890) 3rd person. An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.
Illustration of The Ring of Thoth - audiobook read by Edward French

Illustration of The Ring of Thoth – audiobook read by Edward French

  • A Physiologist’s Wife (September 1890) 3rd person. Social comedy/satire in which cold-hearted rationalist and scientist Professor Ainslie Grey marries one Mrs. O’James. A younger colleague is due to marry his daughter, until he meets the new Mrs Grey and is stunned to realise she is his first wife from Australia who ran off and left him and was drowned in a shipwreck. In fact she didn’t take the boat but came to England to start a new life. Cold rationalist Professor tells them to go be happy and reunited. He dies of a broken heart.
  • A Pastoral Horror (December 1890) 1st person. Murder in a beautiful Alpine valley. An Englishman awaiting the outcome of a bankruptcy case in England has moved to the isolated village of Laden where he is witness to several gruesome murders of peasants in a small Alpine village. The one other educated man in the village is the curé Father VerhagenTurns so imagine everyone’s horror when it turns out to be him, going insane.
  • The Surgeon of Gaster Fell (December 1890) 1st person. 1885. James Upperton moves to an isolated cottage on the Yorkshire Moors to study but becomes embroiled with several mysterious people, Miss Cameron, the Italianate beautiful young woman staying in the boarding house he puts up in, and the self-styled surgeon of Gaster Fell who is the only neighbour, who warns him to bolt his door at night and who he sees cruelly mistreating a wizened old man. One stormy night his front door creaks open and a ghastly evil figure is revealed by lightning. Chased off by another man. In the cold light of day it turns out the old man is clinically and violently insane and being ‘cared’ for by his son and daughter, the surgeon and mysterious young lady.
  • Our Midnight Visitor (February 1891) 1st person. A long atmospheric story set on the small isle of Uffan near Arran. The scenery and mood painted very well a la Robert Louis Stevenson. A stranger appears, a wealthy American calling himself Digby, dropped by his yacht who comes to stay with young MacDonald and his bad-tempered father. The narrator’s suspicions mount until a newspaper cutting reveals that Digby is  Frenchman who has stolen a fabulous diamond and is on the run.
  • A Straggler of ’15 (March 1891) A patriotic portrait of Corporal Gregory Brewster, last survivor of the battle of Waterloo. Superpatriotic and vivid description of working class Chatham.
  • The Voice of Science (March 1891) 3rd person. Drawing room comedy as Mrs Esdaile’s son Rupert takes advantage of the new ‘phonograph’ to record a message listing the conquests and cheating of his sister Rose’s fiance Captain Beesley, who mysteriously runs out the french windows and down the drive never to be seen again.
Illustration for The Voice of Science

Illustration for The Voice of Science

  • The Colonel’s Choice (July 1891) Colonel Bolsover marries young Miss Hilda Thornton despite rumours and the attempt of friends to dissuade him. Several years of happiness follow but then Captain Tresillian appears from India and, in a confrontation scene, he reveals that he and Hilda were engaged but he was penniless. A fire breaks out at Melrose Lodge and the colonel saves his wife then nobly steps into the flames to give her a better life.
  • A Sordid Affair (November 1891) A hymn to honest working women. Mrs Raby is trying hard to support her ex-drunk husband by dressmaking. She makes a beauty for posh women but her husband steals it, panws it and gets blind drunk, forcing Mrs Raby to spend all her savings buying the original dress from its Bond Street shop in order to keep her promise to her client. Then she recovers her husband from the gutter and takes him home. ‘Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle while you remain upon earth?’
  • A False Start (December 1891) 3rd person. Comedy about young Dr Horace Wilkinson who has several false starts of first patients including the gas man and an impoverished gypsy before he called quite by mistake to the house of the local millionaire. Turns out to be a comedy case of mistaken identity in which Wilkinson shines nobly.
  • Out of the Running (January 1892) Pretty young Dolly, farmer’s daughter, has two suitors Adam and Elias and in a number of scenes we meet them and hear her mother’s opinion about which one to take. Dolly thinks it is Adam leaves a dog rose on her window sill every morning and so accepts him. There is an accident with the hayrick which crushes the orphan inarticulate farmhand Bill. Next morning, unable to walk, he crawls to her window to leave another rose sprig and is found there dead. Dolly distraught. Hardy territory.
  • The Great Brown-Pericord Motor (March 1892) 3rd person. Short, grotesque story of two inventors who fall out over a flying machine they’ve created. They fight and one is killed in the struggle. Pericord attaches Brown’s  body to the machine and sends it off out to sea, then goes mad. ‘He walked swiftly down the stair and was quickly reabsorbed into the flood of comfortless clammy humanity which ebbed and flowed along the Strand.’
  • De Profundis (March 1892) Strange and gruesome. Starts with a hymn to the British Empire and its insatiable need for British men. Then the tale of John Vansittart a planter from Ceylon who visits the narrator, goes staying with his friends, marries suddenly but just before departing comes down with smallpox. He sails early and is due to be met by his wife and friend at Falmouth; the ship goes on to Madeira and JV appears in a vision to the narrator out of the calm Atlantic waves…
  • A Regimental Scandal (May 1892) A tale of our fine men in the Army, specifically rich Major Errington who tries to help Colonel Lovell when his shares crash by cheating against himself at cards – until it is revealed. Far from being a scandal this is a hymn to how jolly decent the British Army is.
  • A Question of Diplomacy (summer 1892) Comedy. The Foreign Secretary, laid up with gout, is outwitted by his wife who arranges for his daughter’s fiance to get a position in Tangiers and for the daughter to accompany him and for them to get married asap, all against the FS’s wishes.
  • Lot No.249 (September 1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
Illustration of Lot 249

Illustration of Lot 249

  • Jelland’s Voyage (November 1892) Henry Jelland and Willy McEvoy get into serious debt in a trading port in Japan, and steal the money from their employer who’s on a long trip. When he unexpectedly returns they steal more money to buy a yacht, which is then pursued by the irate employer until the men shoot themselves but their empty yacht is then carried by storm into the wastes of the Pacific.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (December 1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Green Flag (June 1893) The Irish Question: ‘For Irish regiments have before now been disaffected, and have at a distance looked upon the foe as though he might, in truth, be the friend; but when they have been put face on to him, and when their officers have dashed to the front with a wave and halloo, those rebel hearts have softened and their gallant Celtic blood has boiled with the mad Joy of the fight, until the slower Britons have marvelled that they ever could have doubted the loyalty of their Irish comrades.’ In faraway Sudan a British force is overcome by attacking dervishes, the square collapses, things are going badly, when the Republican leader Dennis Connolly unexpectedly rallies the Irish contingent and dies saving the day. Propaganda how even dissidents within rally to the Empire when faced with opponents from without.
  • The Slapping Sal (August 1893) An 18th century yarn. ‘But the splendid discipline of the British service was at its best in such a crisis.’ ‘”He was a villain, but he was a Briton!” said the captain, at last. “He lived like a dog, but, by God, he died like a man!”‘ A British man o’war is struggling against a more powerful French ship but is saved by the mutineers of another British boat, the Slapping Sal and their fierce leader Hairy Hudson who turned out to be a true Brit.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (November 1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • The Lord of Château Noir (July 1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.
Illustration of the Lord of Chateau Noir

Illustration of the Lord of Chateau Noir

  • Round The Red Lamp (1894) COLLECTION of 15 stories themed around medicine, the red lamp being the sign of a GP
  • A Medical Document (October 1894) Three old doctors – a GP, a surgeon and an alienist – sit around discussing eerie cases. There’s passing reference to the way popular fiction uses very rare or vague conditions (‘brain fever’) but rarely actually common diseases (typhoid). And how fiction rarely uses those outbreaks of vice which are so common. I think he’s talking about sex.
  • Behind the Times (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of an old-fashioned doctor way behind modern scientific times, but with a magical healing touch and bedside manner.
  • His First Operation (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of a young student attending his first operation and fainting.
  • The Third Generation (October 1894) Seasoned Dr Horace Selby is visited by Sir Francis Norton who, it quickly tanspires, is infected with syphilis. He explains the taint comes from his hard-living Regency grandfather. He is due to marry the following week. The doctor suggests creating a sudden reason to go abroad and cancel the nuptials. But next morning Dr Selby reads that the noble aristocrat has thrown himself under the wheels of a heavy dray and died, in order to spare the damsel and kill the hereditary taint. True Brit.
  • Sweethearts (October 1894) The doctor in a seaside town meets an old man on a bench who wastes and declines over three consecutive days. Finally he reveals it is because he is waiting for his wife, his childhood sweetheart, to return. I wonder whether Conan Doyle’s readers found this sickly sweet, or lapped it up.
  • The Curse of Eve (October 1894) The nondescript life of Robert Johnson, gentleman’s outfitter, is turned upside down when his wife begins her labour. He chase all over town for one doctor, and then again for a second opinion. After an all-night vigil, his son is delivered. ‘Lives had come and lives had gone, but the great machine was still working out its dim and tragic destiny.’
  • The Doctors of Hoyland (October 1894) Dr James Ripley of Hoyland in Hampshire is astonished when a lady doctor moves to the town. Quickly she establishes herself a practice and ends up treating Ripley himself after he fractures his leg falling from a carriage. His initial sexist resistance to a female doctor is completely overcome by close experience of her ability and he inevitably falls in love with her. Thankfully, Conan Doyle foresees the utter hopelessness of such a resolution and has her remaining devoted to Science, departing for further education in Paris, leaving the country doctor sadder and wiser.
  • The Surgeon Talks (October 1894) Like A Medical Document this consists of paragraph-long anecdotes: how they removed the ear from the wrong patient; how most people receive the diagnosis of impending death nobly etc. The woman who hides her cancer form her husband. ‘…Besides, [a doctor] is forced to be a good man. It is impossible for him to be anything else. How can a man spend his whole life in seeing suffering bravely borne and yet remain a hard or a vicious man? It is a noble, generous, kindly profession, and you youngsters have got to see that it remains so.”‘
  • The Parasite (December 1894) ‘He has to thank his phlegmatic Saxon temperament for it. I am black and Celtic, and this hag’s clutch is deep in my nerves.’
  • A Foreign Office Romance (December 1894) Introduces the figure of the comically garrulous old Frenchman who would mutate into Brigadier Gerard. Here he is named Alphonse Lacour, assistant to the French ambassador who is finalising a treaty with the English Foreign Secretary when a messenger arrives to say the French have handed over Egypt ie lost their bargaining power; at which Alphonse kidnaps the messenger and drives him up and down in a carriage reciting the Koran until it is too late, the treaty is signed, and Alphonse flees back to France a national hero.
  • The Recollections of Captain Wilkie (January 1895) On a train an experienced doctor carries out some Holmesian analysis of the man sitting opposite. He reveals himself to be a reformed professional thief and recounts a number of his adventures. The collection-of-anecdotes story.
  • The Three Correspondents (1896) Incredibly Kiplingey.  Three newspaper correspondents riding through the heat of Egypt to join the army. Racial stereotypes: ‘Mortimer was Saxon—slow, conscientious, and deliberate; Scott was Celtic—quick, happy-go-lucky, and brilliant. Mortimer was the more solid, Scott the more attractive. Mortimer was the deeper thinker, Scott the brighter talker.’ and Anerley the nube. They are attacked by four Arabs who they shoot, Anerley is wounded. But it is he who finds the Arabs’ camel and beats his colleagues back to the telegraph station to send a famous despatch to his paper.
  • Tales of the High Seas: I. The Governor of St. Kitt’s (January 1897) Set in the early 18th century, time of pirates in the Caribbean and among all the pirates the most feared and savage is Captain Sharkey. Captain Scarrow of the ship Morning Star is told a) Sharkey is captured and due to hang next morning b) ordered to take the governor of St Kitts back to London. The governor is duly rowed out the next morning and off they set and he proves a jovial guest who can hold his liquor and tell a good yarn. Having crossed the Atlantic to Beachy Head he rips off his disguise to realise that he is Captain Sharkey, who had cut the governor’s throat and stolen his clothes! With his loyal mate he departs on the only seaworthy boat left and Scarrow watches them commandeer a fishing barque and disappear.
The Governor of St Kitts

The Governor of St Kitts

  • Tales of the High Seas: II. The Two Barques (March 1897) Stephen Craddock, an American Puritan gone bad, volunteers to the governor of Kingston to lead an expedition to trap Sharkey when his boat is reported as drydocked on a remote island, with a similar boat painted to look the same. Doubles. Craddock and crew go hunting for him ashore for several days, then return to their own ship, only to find it is Sharkey’s own Happy Delivery. They imprison him and sail to Kingston where they are greeted as victorious heroes and are about to capture the governor and leading citizens, when heroic Craddock breaks free of his bonds, dives into the sea, and raises the alarm before being shot and drowned by Sharkey.
  • Tales of the High Seas: III. The Voyage of Copley Banks (May 1897) Captain Sharkey murdered Copley Banks’s wife and two children. He plans his revenge, hiring a crew of wrong ‘uns and himself becoming a pirate then fast friends with Sharkey before tricking him aboard his ship, tying him to the muzzle of a gun and booby trapping it all with gunpowder. Boom! End of Captain Sharkey.
  • The Striped Chest (July 1897) Captain Barclay and mate Allardyce go aboard a Portuguese barque which has foundered in a storm. It is abandoned except for a corpse they find. They carry to portable cargo aboard their ship, including an enormously heavy chest which has a note on saying, Don’t open. The second mate, overcome by greed, is discovered dead with his head cloven in like the corpse on the wreck. As the first mate goes to open it Captain Allardyce pulls him back just as a mechanism springs out to crush his head. This is a genuinely atmospheric and powerful story.
  • The Fiend of the Cooperage (October 1897) Mr Meldrum, skipper of the private yacht The Cooperage, puts into an island off Sierra Leone where two Brits are maintaining a trading outpost cf Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands. The nautical terms and atmosphere of the island very well described. But something evil is haunting the island, scaring the negro servants, and stealing away a man every third day… Meldrum and Dr Spelling stay up all night in a tropical thunderstorm to find out what…
  • The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.
  • The Confession (January 1898) ‘She looked down at the grating, and shrank in terror from the sight. A convulsed face was looking out at her, framed in that little square of oak. Two terrible eyes looked out of it—two eyes so full of hungry longing and hopeless despair that all the secret miseries of thirty years flashed into that one glance.’ Very short. A Jesuit priest accidentally reunited with his long-lost love who has herself taken the veil, and they bemoan the doomed love affair which separated them.
  • The Story of the Beetle-Hunter (June 1898) This and the following stories make a set in the Strand of longish, factual stories about mysterious crimes, Holmes stories without Holmes. An unemployed doctor answers an advert in the Standard and goes for an interview with Lord Linchfield who requires a strong man with a good knowledge of beetles. They go by train to Pangbourne to Delamere Court, home of tall eccentric beetle expert Sir Thomas Rossiter. In the middle of the night Rossiter sneaks into their bedroom and attacks the dummy figure in the bed. They are able to accost him and show that he is subject to mad fits, as his wife had claimed.
  • The Story of The Man with the Watches (July 1898) A long puzzle concerning that could almost be a Holmes mystery. A man and lady enter a train to Manchester, having refused to enter a carriage with a bearded man smoking. At Manchester all three are gone, and a young man no-one can account for is found shot dead. The article describes the various theories of police detectives before quoting a long letter form one of the protagonists which explains what happened. It is one of Doyle’s favourite tropes, the ‘revenge from overseas’. A Holmes story without Holmes.
Illustration of the Story of the Man with Watches by Frank Craig

Illustration of the Story of the Man with Watches by Frank Craig

  • The King of the Foxes (July 1898) The setting is a crew of old fox hunters telling yarns and one tells the story of Wat Danbury, whose doctor had told him to lay off alcohol before he began hallucinating, who goes an epic hunt, finally being the only rider left as he enters spooky woods to find himself confronted by a monster giant fox, the king of foxes, killing the hounds. He flees home and never touches a drop again.
  • The Story of The Lost Special (August 1898) ‘It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning, that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth.’ A foreigner hires a special train from Liverpool to Manchester. it never arrives but vanishes into thin air. As in The Man with the Watches the story takes the form of an official report, collating the puzzling crime and then revealing the unriddling solution.
  • The Story of the Sealed Room (September 1898) ‘It was in the course of one of these aimless rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so led up to what has been the most extraordinary adventure of my lifetime.’ Lawyer sees a young man nearly run over by a cab and helps him into his decayed big house. Discovers his father was the banker who ruined lots of people and disappeared. There is one room sealed shut which the absconded father wrote the son not to open till he was 21. A few months later the young man arrives at that age and the lawyer is present at the unsealing of the door where they find the father’s body, dead these seven years. He committed suicide in shame but didn’t want his poorly wife to know.
  • The Story of the Black Doctor (October 1898) Another very detailed and forensic crime mystery which the narrator examines in detail, weighing all the evidence in the mysterious murder of the dark-skinned doctor of Bishop’s Crossing near Liverpool. A Holmes story without Holmes.
  • The Story of The Club-Footed Grocer (November 1898) ‘With every fresh incident I felt that I was moving in an atmosphere of mystery and peril…’ Stephen is invited by letter to visit his disreputable uncle who used to be a ship’s chandler in Stepney but was attacked and beaten and, when the attacker was gaoled, moved to a remote cottage in the Lake District. Thence Stephen goes to discover the pirate has been released form gaol, gathered his crew and is besieging the uncle. There’s a showdown in which the uncle leaps to his death and the stolen diamonds are – cunningly – discovered to be hidden in his club foot boot heel.
  • The Brazilian Cat (December 1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.
"It drew its claws along the wire meshes beneath me." by Sidney Paget

“It drew its claws along the wire meshes beneath me.” by Sidney Paget

  • The Retirement of Signor Lambert (December 1898) A grim and sadistic story in which, like The Case of Lady Sannox, a jealous husband arranges the disfigurement of a lover; in this case the strong-minded self-made man Sir William Sparter discovers a letter from his wife to a celebrated tenor, Signor Lambert. He teaches himself about neck anatomy, goes to the tenor’s house, chloroforms him and permanently damages his vocal cords.
  • A Shadow Before (December 1898) means before the Franco-Prussian War.  We are in Ireland, 1870, and City financier (ie gambler) John Worlington Doddshorse, ordered by his doctor to treat the stress of incipient bankruptcy, stumbles across the biggest horse fair in the land. He sees two different men in the hotel opening lengthy telegrams which appear to be in code. Then witnesses them paying way over the odds for the horses brought to sale. He telegrams his colleague in the City – sells all French and German stocks – there’s going to be a war.
  • The Story of The Japanned Box (January 1899) The old crumbling Thorpe Place in the Malverns in the heart of England, where the narrator goes as tutor to the children of old weathered Sir John Bollamore. He was a hellraiser in his youth but reformed by his sweet wife who died. But the narrator hears a woman’s voice coming form his rooms, and so do the servants. He thinks Sir John a reprobate and hypocrite until he falls asleep in an alcove of the room (ah, that old ruse, like the narrator of The Ring of Thoth) and accidentally sees Sir John open and play a phonograph of his dying wife’s voice.
  • The Story of The Jew’s Breastplate (February 1899) Preposterous chauvinist tosh in which a young curator is given responsibility for a museum of antiquities only to receive an anonymous letter warning that it might be burgled. Which it duly is the the urim and thurim breastplate of the ancient Hebrews tampered with. The narrator lies in wait with the young curator and they are astonished to discover it is the eminent archaeologist and former curator, Professor Andreas, who is damaging the breastplate. Why? Because his daughter is in love with a cad who had already stolen the jewels and the former curator is hamfistedly tying to replace them in order to prevent a ‘scandal’, shame and disgrace.
  • The Story of B.24 (March 1899) Cast entirely as a written submission to a court of appeal, it is from a burglar who is tempted to burgle the grand house of Lord Mannering but discovers Lady Mannering waiting to aid and abet him so furious is her hatred of her husband and she then proceeds to stab him to death and blame the burglar.
  • A True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land (March 1899) Grim unrelenting account of the mutiny of rebellious Malays aboard  a British barque, they murder the captain and captain’s brother and first mate and Chinaman, pilot the ship to South America, scuttle it and go ashore. Nonetheless they are betrayed and end up standing in a London court and are hanged.
  • The Story of the Latin Tutor aka The Usher of Lea House School (April 1899) The narrator gets a job at a dodgy sounding school in Hampstead and is astonished at the rudeness with which the only other master treats the Head. Things come to a head when he hears them fighting and intrudes, only to discover the repellent master is the Head’s son!
  • The Story of The Brown Hand (May 1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.
The Story of the Brown Hand

The Story of the Brown Hand

  • The Croxley Master (October-December 1899) A long and very persuasive account of a poor but educated doctor’s assistant, starved of funds, who is persuaded to take part in a boxing match against the local champion. If the plot is contrived the writing conveys real atmosphere. Depiction of the mining community reminds me of DH Lawrence whose first novel, The White Peacock, was published only 12 years later.

‘Work was struck at one o’clock at the coal-pits and the iron-works, and the fight was arranged for three. From the Croxley Furnaces, from Wilson’s Coal- pits, from the Heartsease Mine, from the Dodd Mills, from the Leverworth Smelters the workmen came trooping, each with his fox-terrier or his lurcher at his heels. Warped with labour and twisted by toil, bent double by week-long work in the cramped coal galleries or half-blinded with years spent in front of white-hot fluid metal, these men still gilded their harsh and hopeless lives by their devotion to sport. It was their one relief, the only thing which could distract their minds from sordid surroundings, and give them an interest beyond the blackened circle which enclosed them. Literature, art, science, all these things were beyond their horizon; but the race, the football match, the cricket, the fight, these were things which they could understand, which they could speculate upon in advance and comment upon afterwards. Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love of sport is still one of the great agencies which make for the happiness of our people. It lies very deeply in the springs of our nature, and when it has been educated out, a higher, more refined nature may be left, but it will not be of that robust British type which has left its mark so deeply on the world. Every one of these raddled workers, slouching with his dog at his heels to see something of the fight, was a true unit of his race.’

The 1900s

  • The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce (January 1900) Sent out to command one of the front line garrisons in south Egypt against incursions by the Mahdists, young Joyce is taken in by a wandering Arab who they nearly torture to get him to speak and turns out to be the senior head of intelligence in disguise. They all joke about it over a fine meal then cigars. No irony when Doyle writes that, in riposte to the successes of fanatical Islam, ‘ten years of silent work in Cairo, and then all was ready, and it was time for civilisation to take a trip south once more, travelling as her wont is in an armoured train.’
  • Playing with Fire (March 1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!
  • An Impression of the Regency (August 1900) A brief powerful vignette of the Prince Regent and his gross companions larking about when the mad George III bursts in, lowing like an animal, to appal them all.
  • The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!

There’s a hiatus in my list of Conan Doyle’s short stories between 1902 and 1908, as this is a period when he wrote and published six Brigadier Gerard stories as well as 13 Holmes stories (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere) and two novels, Waterloo and Sir Nigel.

  • The Pot of Caviare (1908) Set during the Boxer Rebellion (overlapped with the Boer War 1899-1901) in the absurd little legation of Ichau where a handful of white men and woman hold out against the encroaching fanatics. The American professor tells the German colonel about the last time he survived a siege because he was a doctor but he was forced to witness rape and torture. Never again. They both realise the relief column is delayed three days. Almost certainly they will be overrun. The colonel bids the professor put arsenic in the prized caviar. The others think it is a celebration dinner. They all eat it and die but, in is dying moments the professor hears the shots of the relief column which does arrive to  save them!
  • The Silver Mirror (August 1908) Classic diary format. A boring accountant is set a demanding task of combing 20 big ledgers to find evidence against a forger but, as the work intensifies he begins to feel he is going mad because he starts to see visions in the big old mirror he keeps on his side table. Each night the same scene emerges from a mist, assuming steadily clearer shape and showing some atrocity from remote history…
  • The Home-Coming (December 1909) The first of the historical stories. 528 AD in Constantinople. 10 year old Leon is the daughter of the Empress Theodora, her love child who she abandoned at a monastery before rising to become consort to the great Emperor Justinian. When the old Abbot brings Leon to Constantinople the wicked eunuch sees his chance to control the Empress, and she must make a cruel choice…
  • The Lord of Falconbridge (August 1909) 1818. Tom Cribb has retired from prize fighting to become a publican but his son is in the fancy. A strange woman enters and offers the son £50 to train for a fight. Despite misgivings Tom Spring trains, then is instructed by the woman to catch a stagecoach to Tonbridge where he is taken to a remote country house. Here walks the brutish husband of the mystery woman and it is he she wishes Tom to fight, and so they fight, Tom eventually overcoming the brute. He is abandoned by the fair lady but rescued by the landlord of the pub he change coaches in, a devoted fan of the fancy.
Illustration to The Lord of Falconbridge by Arthur Twidle

Illustration to The Lord of Falconbridge by Arthur Twidle

The 1910s

  • The Terror of Blue John Gap (August 1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.

In 1911 Conan Doyle published a collection bringing together a number of historical tales, The Last Galley: Impressions & Tales. His interest in history s is stimulating, even if he used the different settings for more or less the same tales of derring-do and romance. In the preface he wrote:

‘It has seemed to me that there is a region between actual story and actual history which has never been adequately exploited. I could imagine, for example, a work dealing with some great historical epoch, and finding its interest not in the happenings to particular individuals, their adventures and their loves, but in the fascination of the actual facts of history themselves. These facts might be coloured with the glamour which the writer of fiction can give, and fictitious characters and conversations might illustrate them; but none the less the actual drama of history and not the drama of invention should claim the attention of the reader. I have been tempted sometimes to try the effect upon a larger scale; but meanwhile these short sketches, portraying various crises in the story of the human race, are to be judged as experiments in that direction.’

Fine words, but what they mean in practice is Doyle selects tableaux from the past which form an improving picture, in which noble sentiments may be vapoured forth. His ‘history’ stories are the equivalent of the luxuriously smug, hyper-realistic paintings of the late Victorian Olympians such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Frederick Leighton and Albert Moore. They are pre-Modern in that there is no threat to the narrator’s psyche, to his sturdy Edwardian values. No matter how gruesome or bloody the events described, they are profoundly unthreatening. This is their main selling point and appeal, as it is of the Holmes stories.

The link with contemporary art is also pointed by the way the stories are, mostly, illustrated by fine late-Victorian and Edwardian illustrators who depict a world of tall, manly men and lovely chaste Victorian women, threatened by stunted foreign or working class villains.

  • The Last Galley (November 1910) 146 BC. Boy scout tableau of the final Phoenician galley returning to Carthage after the fleet has been destroyed by Rome. Watched by Carthaginians from their terrace, one of them has met a strange prophetess in the Land of Tin (Cornwall) who predicted that the Romans would succeed Carthage as Queen of the Sea but that people form her own island would, in time, become rulers of a great empire. It ends with the Romans destroying and sowing salt into the ruins of Carthage, and with the same message as Kipling’s Islanders:

‘And they understood too late that it is the law of heaven that the world is given to the hardy and to the self- denying, whilst he who would escape the duties of manhood will soon be stripped of the pride, the wealth, and the power, which are the prizes which manhood brings.’

  • Through the Mists I: The Coming of the Huns (November 1910) Unusually detailed impression of the Christian heresies of the mid-fourth century, the Donatists, Arians and Trinitarians, is the backdrop to a Greek leaving his city to go be a hermit in the mountains beyond the river Dniester where, one day, he witnesses the arrival of the Huns. He kills a Hun who enters  his cave then rides in a frenzy to the nearest Roman outpost to warn them.
The Coming of The Huns

The Coming of The Huns

  • Through the Mists II: The First Cargo (1910) A Roman who’s remained behind in Britain writes to one who’s returned to Italy to describe his first meeting with the Saxons king Vortigern has invited to come and defend them. There is strong racial stereotyping as the narrator contrasts the strong, practical, democratic Saxons with the weak-minded, impetous, unwarlike Britons (who will go on to become the Welsh and Cornish).
  • The Last of the Legions (December 1910) The last Roman governor receives the order to leave (410) and then, ironically receives a deputation of Britons calling for independence. When they learn that they suddenly are going to become independent the beg the Romans to stay but it is too late. A parable on the various movements demanding independence from the British empire eg Ireland, India.
  • Through the Mists III: The Red Star (January 1911) 630 in Constantinople, three successful merchants reminisce, and one remembers being on a long caravan trail through Arabia when they meet the caravan of Mohammed and his followers and how he stays up all night listening to the charismatic leader. Interesting insight into how 1911 saw the Prophet.
  • The Contest (March 1911) A comic story of Nero who set sail to Greece with an army of supporters to compete in singing competitions and is bested by a peasant goatherd who, however, is hustled off by his friends. A canny courtier tells Nero it was none other than the great god Pan in disguise which pleases the megalomaniac.
  • An Iconoclast (March 1911) The year 92 in the reign of the Emperor Domitian in Rome. Senator Emilius Flaccus returns from boozing with the emperor to find his priceless statue has been damaged by a fanatical Christian. When the emperor arrives Flaccus decides to show him mercy and release Datus from his chains if he will only pray to the statue. But once again he attacks it, to the emperor’s amusement.
  • The Blighting of Sharkey (April 1911) 1720. Return to the antihero wicked pirate Jack Sharkey from the three Tales of the High Seas from 1897. The crew are mutinying when a rich merchantman is seen and boarded. They kill all the passengers except a fine Spanish maiden but back  in Sharkey’s cabin she strokes them all with her leprous hand. This clinches the crew’s decision to mutiny and they set Sharkey and the girl adrift in an open boat.
Captain Sharkey

Captain Sharkey

  • Through the Veil (April 1911) A decent married Scottish man and wife are shown round he recent excavations of a Roman fort and later that night they both dream powerfully that they are participants in the storming of the fort by Picts some 1800 years previously.
  • Giant Maximin (July 1911) 210 AD. The fate of the eight-foot giant Theckla told in three scenes: who sees the Roman Army marching by and runs down to join it, becoming the bodyguard of the Emperor; 25 years later who is there when the Army mutinies against the emperor Alexander and is unexpectedly proclaimed emperor himself; who fails to cultivate Rome and the politicians and loses the love of the army as it starves, and so is killed by the very legionaries who raised him to the purple.
  • One Crowded Hour (A Pirate Of The Land) (August 1911) A light dash of social history – on the Eastbourne-Tunbridge road one Sunday night a masked man holds up three cars, taking the slim pickings of a don’t-you-know posh young chap, of two screechy actresses, and then he assaults a rich man in a big Daimler beating him insensible before stealing everything of value. Next morning the dashed young chap walks into the morning room of Sir Henry Hailworthy, of Walcot Old Place, Deputy-Lieutenant of the county and accuses him of being the highway robber. He admits it. The first two robberies were to disguise the third one, of a loathsome City spiv who diddled him out of his savings. The dashed young chap shakes his hand and agrees to forget about it. The title refers to the poem and the usually staid, respectable Deputy Lord Lieutenant and JP quotes it to express his excitement at pretending to be a highway robber.

Most of 1912 was taken up with the serialisation in the Strand of the great adventure novel, The Lost World.

  • The Fall of Lord Barrymore (December 1912) Very entertaining story about London man about town Sir Charles Tregellis during the Regency. His sophisticated nephew appears and promises to do down his rival about town, the thuggish Lord Barrymore. And proceeds to do it. Told with great wit and gusto!

The spring of 1913 was taken up with the serialisation of the novella The Poison Belt.

  • How It Happened (September 1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!
  • Borrowed Scenes (September 1913) A peculiar squib which seems to be satirising the style and the character of the contemporary author George Borrow.
  • The Horror of the Heights (November 1913) Brilliantly gripping account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.
The Horror of The Heights

The Horror of The Heights

  • Danger! being the Log of Captain Sirius (July 1914) A strange and disturbing story. The Captain Sirius works for a ‘small country’ which offends Britain which issues an ultimatum. He persuades his king to let him take his eight submarines and destroy British merchant navy, thus starving her. Predicts German tactics in both World Wars – but why was it published within days of the Great War breaking out?

As the Great War began, for September 1914 to May 1915, Conan Doyle was serialising the last of the four Sherlock Holmes novellas, the Valley of Fear.

  • The Prisoner’s Defence (January 1916) An intense melodrama set in the present day, during the War. An officer is charged with murdering a beautiful woman but refuses to defend himself. Only a month later does he read out a prepared statement. He was in love with tall French blonde. On leave she pushed him so hard, he was indiscreet and mentioned an Allied offensive. Later he discovers she has written it all up and is posting it to her control: she is a German spy! They lock her in a room and he goes to alert the cops but on his return she tears past him on her motorbike (!). He shoots his revolver and kills her. The prisoner’s defence rests.

In 1917 he published only one story, the Holmes spy tale His Last Bow.

  • Three of Them (April 1918) After 3 and a half years of war, Conan Doyle could only bring himself to write five ‘stories’ which are really just chats between a kindly middle aged dad and his three adorable middle class children, Laddie, Dimples and Baby. If you were i a cynical mood the tweeness of these little sketches might make you puke. They certainly capture a fantasy of professional upper middle class living. The titles sum  them up. I. A Chat About Children, Snakes and Zebus (April). II. About cricket (April)  III. Speculations [about God and the Devil] (July). IV. The Leatherskin Tribe (August). V. About Naughtiness and Frogs and Historical Pictures (December).

‘Oh, Daddy, come and talk about cricket!’ Daddy was pulled on the side of the bed, and the white figure dived between the sheets. ‘Yes; tell us about cwicket!’ came a cooing voice from the corner. Dimples was sitting up in his cot.

  • A Point of View (December 1918) An odd short squib wherein an American journalist, staying at an English country house, writes a piece wondering why any self-respecting man would be a servant. At a later stay the valet this was based on takes exception and makes it very plain that servants have self-respect and deserve respect: ‘I wish you would make them understand that an English servant can give good and proper service and yet that he’s a human bein’ after all.’

The 1920s

  • The Bully of Brocas Court (November 1921) 1878. Bareknuckle fighting has been outlawed but special rings and gloves not come in. Sir Fred Milburn is despatched to London to find someone who can stand up to Farrier-Sergeant Burton. He chooses the London fighter Alf Stevens. They are returning to Luton when their coach is stopped by an oddly-dressed pair of men in a dark dell who challenge them to a fight. So they fight and it’s honours even when they hear a howling from the woods and clear off. Later, at an inn, the landlord says they were fighting the ghosts of Tom Hickman and Joe Rowe, both killed in a carriage accident in the 1820s.
  • The Nightmare Room (December 1921) A room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which a beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂
  • The Lift (June 1922) Flight-Commander Stangate with his sweetheart has a premonition of evil. They ascend the big funfair lift with a motley crew of civilians. It jams 500 feet up. The wild-eyed bearded engineer reveals, from the girders, that he has arranged for it to plummet to their deaths as a sign to this wicked generation. At the last minute Stangate kicks down the wooden walls of the lift and helps the passengers onto the girders just as the madmen jumps into it and the cable snaps!
Illustration to The Lift (1922) by E.Verpilleux

Illustration to The Lift (1922) by E.Verpilleux

  • The Centurion (October 1922) [Being the fragment of a letter from Sulpicius Balbus, Legate of the Tenth Legion, to his uncle, Lucius Piso, in his villa near Baiæ, dated The Kalends of the month of Augustus in the year 824 of Rome.] wherein he witnesses the siege and fall of Jerusalem, 70AD, and then talks to a centurion who was there when Jesus was crucified.
  • A Point of Contact (October 1922) Tyre. 1100BC. In the noble stereotypes to which we are accustomed, Doyle paints a tableau, the moment when King David of the Israelites, come to buy building material for Jerusalem, meets Odysseus, refitting his ship before sailing on to Troy.

‘One of these men was clearly by his face and demeanour a great chieftain. His strongly-marked features were those of a man who had led an adventurous life, and were suggestive of every virile quality from brave resolve to desperate execution. His broad, high brow and contemplative eyes showed that he was a man of wisdom as well as of valour.’

  • Billy Bones (December 1922) One more in the twee three of Them series about Daddy and his three adorable children, Laddie, Dimples and Baby. Written as practical advice to daddies about how to create a Treasure Hunt.

The years 1923-28 were taken up with a reduced turnover of 11 Sherlock Holmes stories and a couple of Professor Challenger novellas.

  • Spedegue’s Dropper (October 1928)
  • The Death Voyage (September 1929) A long and detailed counterfactual in which Doyle envisions the Kaiser not abdicating but travelling to Kiel to inspire his Navy to set out for a final epic battle against the joint British and American fleets. What a strange story. And, like so many Great War fictions, it had to wait 11 years to be born.
  • The Last Resource (August 1930) Kid Wilson is an American gangster in hiding in Soho. Late on night he tells his English crook hosts about an American town whose citizens form a committee, tell the chief of police to go away for a few days, round up all the crooks in town and machine gun them to death in a dance hall. It was only a dream 🙂 Interesting though, that that’s the kind of solution which people invoked to the out-of-control gangster violence of the Prohibition era.
  • The End of Devil Hawker (August 1930) Back to the Regency period and another boxing story.

‘It was in these very rooms of Cribb that this little sketch of those days opens, where, as on a marionette stage, I would try to show you what manner of place it was and what manner of people walked London in those full-blooded, brutal and virile old days.’

  • The Parish Magazine (1930) Very funny light-hearted story set in the present day of a printer who is persuaded to publish an addendum to the parish magazine. Only when he receives letters from outraged local worthies and their lawyers does he actually read it and realise it is full of scandalous allegations and innuendoes about half the parish. After a sleepless night he is called to a mysterious meeting which turns out to be of the ‘Rotherheath Society of Bright Young People’ who have, in fact, not sent it out, fabricated the outraged letters to him, and did it all as a practical joke.

It is very that his last published story should be one which continues to show the jovial good-humour which makes Conan Doyle such a good companion.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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