The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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25 thoughts on “The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. Your point about reading racial tems within their constext is a good one. I recently a collection of Martha Gellhorn’s reportage which made me cringe but I doubt she’d have the same attitudes now.

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    • Sometimes I find it easy to overlook and other times it really jars. I always think it depends on whether I feel the author is just using the language and attitudes of their time rather than making an actual point of being racist. I find most British colonial writers of the Victorian era seemed to show a lot of respect for different cultures – and quite a lot of fear of them too.

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    • He really is a master of this kind of mix of adventure and mild horror. It’s a pity if it’s the language that puts people off – I kinda understand it, but it’s very limiting since so much excellent British fiction of that era has the same issue. Hope you enjoy it if you try it!

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  2. In general, I am probably more forgiving of problematic ideas about race, gender, disability etc in classics or even Historical Fiction, as they form part of the context and should aid us as modern readers in the understanding of people’s views and opinions from other times. Having said that, it sounds as if Conan Doyle was perhaps in some ways a bit ahead of his time in this story despite the use of some racist language. I’ve never heard of this particular story, but I might try and get hold of it out of curiosity.

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    • I find a lot of the Victorian colonial writers were fascinated by other cultures and quite admiring of them, so I feel it’s a pity if we can’t get past them using words we no longer think are acceptable. And in historical fiction, it annoys me considerably more when characters have anachronistically modern attitudes than when they show how things actually were. I don’t know how many books I’ve abandoned recently over authors putting characters in the Victorian world and then having them behave and talk like 21st century liberals! Hope you can get hold of this one – it’s very enjoyable!

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  3. Somehow, FictionFan, I had the feeling you’d really like this one. It is ACD, after all. It sounds deliciously creepy, and with a good sense of atmosphere, which I always respect in his work. People who think he only wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories might learn more by reading something like this. And I do like the idea of using his own Scots way of communicating, at least a bit. I like those different language patterns.

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    • I was thrilled to find one where he used a bit of Scots dialect – since he usually based his books in England it can be easy to forget he’s a Scot. This one would meet my strict definition of Scottish fiction! And since I love a bit of Victorian horror, a dramatic adventure AND a bit of the old colonial fiction, this one was a perfect fit for me. I must see what other “forgotten” ACDs are tucked away in my Kindle Complete Works… 😀

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  4. I’ve not heard of this one before, but it sounds intriguing. I suppose we should be more forgiving over stereotypes, terminology, customs, etc. from ages past. They help us understand our world from before, as well as appreciate how much things have changed. It’s grand starting the week out with a five-star review!

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    • I’d never heard of it either – poor ACD always complained that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed all his other stuff. Yes, exactly – I do think we can only really know what earlier people thought and believed through the literature and art they left behind, and if we’re going to limit ourselves only to things that could have been written today we’re going to miss out on so much…

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  5. As you mention, I had not heard of this lesser known one, but now you’ve put it in my radar. I see racial terms older books like you, and as many comment, it helps us know about how we were as humans at different times in history.

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    • It’s well worth reading if you get a chance! Yes, I do think we limit ourselves as readers if we can’t see past words and attitudes we wouldn’t use today. I usually can, especially when, as here, it seems to me as if the author is fascinated by another culture rather than completely arrogant about it.

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  6. So glad you enjoyed this one since some of your other recent ones have been duds. It does sound good, but I’m trying to be much more select in what I add to my wishlist/TBR. Between you and a few others, my lists have become ridiculously out of control! (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) 😉

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    • Haha – yes, I seem to hit little patches of dud books every now and again but thankfully some good ones always turn up before too long! 😀 But this one is really quite short – just a novella – so it’d take up hardly any space on your list at all… 😉

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  7. I’m always in the mood for a ‘dollop’ of horror 🙂 This sounds like a good one, strange it has fallen out of favour. Educators are partly to thank/blame for what classics stick around I think. If there’s too much racist language, schools won’t teach it, so these older stories tend to get forgotten…

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  8. The use of Scots dialect by your beloved ACD sounds as if it gives you so much joy!
    Another problem with deciding not to read anything old and racist means we should be weeding out all of the other ‘isms,’ sexism, ageism and any others we can think of. And no doubt books written now are going to offend readers in the future for reasons which we are not evolved enough to know yet.

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    • Yes, it was lovely to see him in Scots mode! 😀

      Haha – I’m already offended by lots of contemporary fiction because I object to political-correctness-ism, banging-the reader-over-the-head-with-messages-ism, and anachronistic-attitudes-in-historical-fiction-ism! And many, many other isms… 😂

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  9. Oh, I hadn’t heard of this one before, but it sounds quite intriguing. I’ve long been curious about Doyle’s non-Holmes stories, but haven’t seen much about them. I will definitely be adding this one to my list!

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    • I’ve been trying to read more of his non-Holmes stuff over the last few years and he really is an amazingly versatile writer. His horror stories are always excellent too, and I love his Professor Challenger stories. One day I must tackle one of his historical fiction novels! Hope you enjoy this one if you manage to fit it in! 😀

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