The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

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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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Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

* * * * *

No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

* * * * *

Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

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When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

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Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

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Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday Terror! Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Beware the Mummy!!

As autumn nights grow darker, the fretful porpentine has poked his little nose out of his hibernation box and demanded new stories to get him through the winter months. Or old stories – like this one from the master storyteller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to kick off a new season of horror…?

Tuesday Terror 2Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

…when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

Three students live in a corner turret in Old College in Oxford. Our hero is Abercrombie Smith, a medical student studying hard for his final exams, and a man of both robust physical attributes and a steady, unimaginative mind. On the floor below is Edward Bellingham, a strange and rather repulsive man with a pasty complexion and rolls of loose skin as if he had lost a lot of weight at some time. He is a student of Eastern languages and has spent much time amongst the people of Egypt and the arab lands. Below him is William Monkhouse Lee – a friend of Bellingham, who is engaged to be married to Lee’s sister. They are connected by an ancient staircase…

Life has flowed like water down this winding stair, and, waterlike, has left these smooth-worn grooves behind it. From the long-gowned, pedantic scholars of Plantagenet days down to the young bloods of a later age, how full and strong has been that tide of young, English life. And what was left now of all those hopes, those strivings, those fiery energies, save here and there in some old-world churchyard a few scratches upon a stone, and perchance a handful of dust in a mouldering coffin? Yet here were the silent stair and the grey, old wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from the days that had passed.

Abercrombie Smith is warned by his friend James Hastie to steer clear of Bellingham. Hastie says Bellingham’s character is as unpleasant as his appearance, and gives an example to back up his claim…

“Well, you know the towpath along by the river. There were several fellows going along it, Bellingham in front, when they came on an old market-woman coming the other way. It had been raining–you know what those fields are like when it has rained – and the path ran between the river and a great puddle that was nearly as broad. Well, what does this swine do but keep the path, and push the old girl into the mud, where she and her marketings came to terrible grief. It was a blackguard thing to do…”

Despite this tale, Abercrombie Smith suspects that Hastie is in love with Bellingham’s fiancée and that it’s the green-eyed monster talking, so dismisses his warnings.

However, later that night, after Hastie has left, Abercrombie Smith hears a stange hissing noise from the room below. Then suddenly…

…there broke out in the silence of the night a hoarse cry, a positive scream – the call of a man who is moved and shaken beyond all control.

Lee bursts into his room asking for assistance – Bellingham has apparently been taken ill. Abercrombie Smith rushes down to find Bellingham in a dead faint. His room is more like a museum – filled with curiosities from the East and strange relics from the tombs of Egypt, and a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling. But there’s one thing in particular that sends chills down Abercrombie Smith’s spine…

…a mummy case, which had been conveyed from the wall, as was evident from the gap there, and laid across the front of the table. The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its claw-like hand and bony forearm resting upon the table. Propped up against the sarcophagus was an old, yellow scroll of papyrus, and in front of it, in a wooden armchair, sat the owner of the room, his head thrown back, his widely opened eyes directed in a horrified stare to the crocodile above him, and his blue, thick lips puffing loudly with every expiration.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Soon Abercrombie Smith will be locked in battle against an evil beyond his wildest imaginings…

* * * * * * *

Did you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I. Isn’t that fascinating? So every time you watch a mummy movie, it was inspired either directly or indirectly by this story.

Sometimes the problem with these old originals is that each generation of descendants adds something to them until eventually the originals can seem a bit bland. I must say I think this story stands up very well for about 95% of it, and then has a rather anti-climactic ending in comparison to what we’d expect now. The old college and winding staircase give it all a nicely gothic feel and of course Conan Doyle’s writing is perfectly suited to that kind of style. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and a particularly scary scene when our hero is pursued through the night by the murderous mummy.

I do like my horror stories to include the old battle between good and evil thing, and this has that to perfection. So it’s not just interesting for its place in the history of horror, it’s also still a very enjoyable tale of terror in its own right. The porpentine and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?

Who indeed?

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link. It’s quite a long short story – maybe about an hour’s worth.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

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The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

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The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Book 9 of 90

Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Love, cruelty, murder and revenge…

.

a study in scarlet 3

 

The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…

By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.

Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

a study in scarlet 5

And so, the game’s afoot…

* * * * * * *

Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!

There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…

Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.

The Mormon Trek to Utah
The Mormon Trek to Utah

In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…

“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”

Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…

 

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Book 15
Book 15

Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock holmes the dark mysteriesVampires, hounds and lunatics…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This pocket-sized little book is published by the Collector’s Library and contains some of the darkest of the Holmes stories. There is an interesting introduction by David Stuart Davies, himself a writer of crime and ghost stories, and an authority on Holmes. Apparently he has also written six Holmes novels himself. He reminds us of Conan Doyle’s interest in things not of this world as a great advocate of Spiritualism, and has selected stories that show Conan Doyle’s flair for going close to the edge of the supernatural, though in the Holmes stories the solution is always ultimately based in the rational world.

The book kicks off with the long story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most popular of all the Holmes tales. This is Conan Doyle’s writing at its finest, a thrilling tale with a dramatic setting amidst the mists and mires of Dartmoor, and a terrifying climax as Holmes and Watson finally face the hound that has been the curse of the Baskerville family for generations.

Hound drawing

Then there are seven of the short stories, all either with an element of the supernatural or with particularly dark and brutal storylines:

The Sussex Vampire – when a woman is found apparently sucking blood from her own baby and will give no explanation, her frantic husband applies to Holmes for help. What Holmes discovers reveals a very human darkness at the heart of this family, perhaps more frightening than had the woman truly been a vampire.

The Creeping Man – An elderly man who has fallen in love with a young woman starts exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour and seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility. I must admit this is probably my least favourite of all the Holmes stories because it’s so far-fetched. That’s because the scientific explanation seems so ridiculous. However Davies points out that there were experiments of this nature going on in real life at the time, so the story probably seemed much more credible to contemporary readers.

The Veiled Lodger – there’s no detection in this one, as Holmes is simply the recipient of the secret behind the tragedy that befell the lodger of the title. Mrs Ronder and her husband were circus folk, lion-tamers… until it all went horribly and gruesomely wrong. Betrayal, brutality and cowardice are at the heart of this story – and it’s one example of Conan Doyle’s tendency to have Holmes leave punishment of wickedness to a higher power.

veiled lodger

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place – a Gothic tale of crypts and corpses, greed and deception, this has definite elements of the horror story about it. The credibility might be a bit over-stretched but Conan Doyle’s writing just about carries it off.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax – Lady Frances Carfax is alone and friendless, a perfect victim for any unscrupulous conman who wants to get hold of her property. Definitely a horror story this one, with a burial scene of Poe-like terror. And a very nice bit of detection too.

The Devil’s Foot – one evening, a man leaves his two brothers and his sister happily playing cards together. The next morning, the two men are stark, raving mad and the woman is dead, with a look of utter terror etched on her face. When I first read Holmes at around the age of ten, this story frightened the bejabers out of me, and I still find it the most truly horrifying of them all. The image of those grinning mad men being carted off to the asylum lives in my nightmares, and the scene where Holmes and Watson come close to losing their own senses is both scary and moving, as one of the rare occasions when Holmes reveals his deep affection for loyal old Watson.

The_Adventure_of_the_Devil's_Foot_03

The Cardboard Box – the last story in the book is another that planted itself firmly in my mind from first reading and refused to go away. A woman receives a box in the mail and when she opens it, she finds it contains two freshly cut human ears – but not from the same body! Betrayal and brutality again, combined with the demon drink, are the cause of this horror. But, just as a little piece of advice, if you ever want to send body parts through the post, make sure you have the right address…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book itself is rather gorgeous. It’s only just over 4” by 6” so the pages are tiny, which explains why there are over 450 of them. The font is pretty small too, but very clear, and some of the original illustrations are included. Beneath the rather lovely sleeve, the cover itself is of dark red cloth with the title on the spine in gilt, and is beautifully tactile. With the finishing touches of gilt edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, this would make a perfect gift, especially for someone just being introduced to the Holmes stories. Though even although I know the stories so well and have at least three copies of the full adventures, I still found this a little delight and enjoyed reading the stories grouped in this way. A most pleasing little volume.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collector’s Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Adventure of the Dancing Men

Cracking the code…

 

Since spring is almost upon us (that falls decidedly into the category of wishful thinking…), the fretful porpentine has gone into hibernation for a while to recover from the horrors of the winter. So, as well as the approaching return of Transwarp Tuesday!, it’s time for a new series. Don your deerstalker, take a swig from the bottle of hooch in your desk drawer, polish off your little grey cells, and join me for the first…

Tuesday Tec

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is busily showing off his deductive powers to Watson when they are interrupted by the arrival of a new client, Mr Hilton Cubitt. He tells them that there have been strange doings afoot at his manor house in Norfolk – mysterious pictures of dancing matchstick men have been appearing, first in letters sent to his wife, and now scrawled on doors and buildings around the grounds. Mr Cubitt is a good, old-fashioned Englishman, who would never be discombobulated by such childishness. But his wife Elsie is plainly terrified. She is American, and on the day before their marriage following a whirlwind romance, she extracted a promise from Mr Cubitt that he would never question her about her past. So our upright friend has come to Holmes for help to solve the mystery of the dancing men…

Dancing Men 1

Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.

The Dancing Men (1984)

This may well be the story that really inspired my love of crime fiction, and quite probably influenced me to prefer clues and mysteries to mavericks and gore. It’s one of the many stories in which Holmes actually fails pretty dismally and I fear I can’t let him off the hook very easily – had he sent a telegram when he discovered the truth, all may have been well. However, the story would have been considerably duller and Conan Doyle never made the error of saving an innocent victim or two at the expense of telling an exciting yarn. Holmes, having failed to prevent the crime, sets himself grimly to solve the mystery and get vengeance for his client – a common feature of the stories. For Conan Doyle, it is always more important that the villain should get his just desserts, whether at human or divine hand, than that the crime should be prevented.

“I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”

“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.

 

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 2

I love pretty much all of the Holmes stories. They were variable, especially in terms of plotting, but Conan Doyle was such a master storyteller that he could make even the flimsiest plot enjoyable. In this one, the plot is good, but the main emphasis is less on the story or on finding clues than on the breaking of the code and, for me, that’s what makes it such a joy. Watson plays completely fair – we get all the messages at the same time as Holmes does, and the solution makes complete sense. So the reader can either read the story straight through, or do what I did (when I was about 11) and spend hours trying to break the code before reading the solution, Sadly, I now know the story too well to repeat that bit of fun, but there was a time when I was actually able to use the code to write my own secret messages!

So once you’ve read the story (click here) and memorised the code here’s a little bonus message just for you.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

* * * * *

(NB The Little Grey Cells rating will measure the mystery element of a story. To get 5 cells and thus become a Poirot, the story must have a proper mystery and clues, and a solution that it’s possible for the reader to get to before the detective.)

Tuesday Terror! Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Gelatinous jellyfish in the sky…

 

Even the bravest amongst us must surely have shivered when the ghastly howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles echoed over the doom-laden moors. So who better than the master storyteller to lead us into a nightmare far above the clouds in this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

The Horror of the Heights cover

I have seen the beauty and I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or greater horror than that is not within the ken of man.

First published in 1913, we are in the early days of flight, when brave aviators were exploring the previously unknown regions above the clouds. The story is taken from the pages of a notebook found amidst wreckage in a field in the south of England, but no trace was ever found of the man who wrote them – Mr Joyce-Armstrong, known to his friends as ‘a poet and a dreamer, as well as a mechanic and an inventor’. A skilled amateur aeronaut, he has been roused to suspicion by a number of mysterious deaths of other flyers…

And then there was Myrtle’s head. Do you really believe – does anybody really believe – that a man’s head could be driven clean into his body by the force of a fall?

He has a theory that, far above the clouds, at the extreme limit of where the most modern aeroplanes could reach, there lurks an unknown danger…

A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.

 

The Horror of the Heights 2

And so he sets off in his tiny monoplane to fly above thirty thousand feet into one of the zones where some of the mysterious deaths and disappearances have happened…

Every cord and strut was humming and vibrating like so many harp-strings, but it was glorious to see how, for all the beating and buffeting, she was still the conqueror of Nature and the mistress of the sky.

The journey is a long one as his ascent must be slow so that he can become accustomed to the rarefied air, and as he rises he describes the wonders of the clouds he is passing through and the earth beneath him. And finally, he reaches forty thousand feet and lo! There is indeed an air-jungle filled with beautiful mysterious creatures like giant jellyfish, changing colour as they float through the air. But they are not the only creatures that inhabit the jungle – there is a purple thing, with monstrous eyes and three bubble-like protuberances on its back…

The vague, goggling eyes which were turned always upon me were cold and merciless in their viscid hatred… As quick as a flash there shot out a long tentacle from this mass of floating blubber, and it fell as light and sinuous as a whip-lash across the front of my machine.

The Horror of the Heights 1

Pulling out his trusty shotgun, he fires on the beast…

…though, indeed, it was like attacking an elephant with a pea-shooter to imagine that any human weapon could cripple that mighty bulk.

Escaping, he returns to earth; but wishing to have something to prove that his story was true, he decides to make one more trip to catch one of the creatures…

OK, I admit it. This story made me chuckle more than shiver, but only because we know now that there are no such creatures in the sky…don’t we? But back in 1913, I’m sure it would have been considerably more effective. In terms of descriptive writing, it’s great – giving a real feel for the experience of early flying in a plane held together by string and prayer. The monsters have an almost Lovecraftian feel about them, as does the idea of the tale being found in a fragmentary journal. But of course it was written long before Lovecraft, so probably fairer to say that Lovecraft achieves a Doylian feel. There’s no mystery about how it will end, since we know from the beginning that the trip doesn’t go well, but that lack of tension is compensated for by the imagination that created these creatures and described them so well. It would be a fun story to read just as you’re taking off on your next budget flight…

The Horror of the Heights 4

 

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀

The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

the coming of the fairies“If you believe in fairies, clap your hands…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this short book, Conan Doyle tells the story of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ – 5 photographs taken over a three-year period purporting to show fairies and gnomes sporting in a valley in Yorkshire. The photos were taken by two young girls, but it was only when Conan Doyle got his hands on them that they became a cause célèbre.

By the time the first photos surfaced in 1917, Conan Doyle had already become a firm supporter of spiritualism and, while he makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the existence of fairies to be directly related to people communicating from beyond the grave, he expresses his hope that this ‘proof’ of one thing thought to be a myth might open people’s minds to considering the truth of the other. In short, he was motivated to accept the photos as genuine and to dismiss any other explanation. And sadly, that’s exactly what he does.

cot fairies 1

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Unlike the revered Mr Holmes, Conan Doyle decided to believe the improbable by assuming that it was impossible for the girls to fake the photos. Fortunately, by the time the girls admitted that the fairies were copied from a magazine, cut out from cardboard and held in place by hatpins, Conan Doyle had long since died – though of course one of his medium friends may have passed on the shock news.

cot fairies 4

“We received [psychic] communications from a fairy named Bebel several times, one of them lasting nearly an hour. The communication was as decided and swift as from the most powerful spirit. He told us that he was a Leprechaun (male), but that in a ruined fort near us dwelt the Pixies. Our demesne had been the habitation of Leprechauns always, and they with their Queen Picel, mounted on her gorgeous dragon-fly, found all they required in our grounds.”

Extract of a letter from one of Conan Doyle’s ‘witnesses’.

cot fairies 2

The book itself is less interesting than I hoped. Conan Doyle includes his own magazine article and copies of the correspondence between himself and Edward Gardner, the man who carried out the investigation. But he also includes copies of lots of correspondence he received from other people also claiming to have seen fairies and his acceptance of even the tallest of these tales becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a time. There’s also a long chapter in the form of a report from a clairvoyant who sees so many fairies, goblins and gnomes cavorting in the valley that it’s hard to understand how a man of Conan Doyle’s undoubted intelligence couldn’t see it for the sham it so clearly was. Unless, of course, you believe in fairies…

cot fairies 3

(It’s OK, Lady Fancifull – I’ve finished. You can stop clapping now… 😉 )

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sherlock Holmes: Further Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – BBC Audio

Masters at work…

pipepipe pipe pipe pipe

 

sherlock holmes further collection

Master actor, Carleton Hobbs, plays master detective, Sherlock Homes, created by master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bliss!

This collection of twelve short stories, adapted into half-hour radio plays and recorded in the 1950s and 60s, captures the true spirit of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Unlike many dramatisations over the years, these stick rigidly to the original tales and are the better for it. Carleton Hobbs is a superbly sardonic Holmes and is ably assisted by the excellent Norman Shelley, playing a bluff and genial Watson. The two work seamlessly together and are supported by a cast of fine actors and actresses, often reappearing as different characters.

Seven of these stories are from the final section of the Holmes’ collection, The Casebook. Written at a time when Conan Doyle had lost his enthusiasm for Holmes, but couldn’t resist the enormous fees he was being offered for more episodes, these are often considered weaker than the earlier works – but in the hands of Hobbs, Shelley et al they reveal themselves to be little masterpieces. The other five episodes are randomly selected from across the whole collected works. Watch out for A Case of Identity – the performance of the actress playing our put-upon heroine, Mary Sutherland, is a little gem. Unfortunately, no cast lists are provided in this collection so I had no idea who she was while listening, but a fellow reviewer later informed me she is none other than Ysanne Churchman, perhaps better known as Grace Archer!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his moustache
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his pet moustache

A brief introduction to each story is provided by Nick Utechin, a former editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal. His enthusiasm for the stories shines through as he sets the scene for the episode to come.

There is a warning on the box that the sound quality is variable, particularly on the last two discs. The Cardboard Box and The Naval Treaty do suffer quite a bit from quality issues but not badly enough to spoil the enjoyment they provide. Otherwise the quality is remarkably good considering the age of the recordings. The box also tells us that 4 of the stories were missing from the BBC archives and were provided by a Holmes enthusiast – the box doesn’t specify but I’m guessing these are the four with the poorer sound quality on the last two discs. A measure of quality loss is a small price to pay for the recovery of these lost little treasures.

The test of an audio-CD for me is will I listen to it more than once. For this collection, the answer is a resounding yes. Highly recommended.

Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley
Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley

The stories are: The Copper Beeches, Thor Bridge, The Three Garridebs,
The Sussex Vampire, The Three Gables, The Retired Colourman,
The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Crooked Man, The Cardboard Box,
A Case of Identity, The Naval Treaty
and The Noble Bachelor.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. These are also available as an Audible download.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

the adventures of sherlock holmesThe definitive reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a huge fan of Holmes and Watson, it’s always a great pleasure to me to try out a new version of the stories. In this set, Derek Jacobi gives such wonderful readings that I think this will become the definitive audio version. These twelve unabridged stories give over 11 hours of enormous listening pleasure. The Adventures were the earliest Holmes short stories, of course, written when Conan Doyle was still enthusiastic for the character he later tried to kill off. Some of the best are here: The Red-Headed League, The Five Orange Pips, The Speckled Band.

If you are already a Holmesian, Jacobi’s readings will refresh the stories for you. Without in any way acting them out, he manages to subtly alter his voice and accent for each character thus bringing them individually to life. His Watson is as bluff and genial as we imagine, Holmes is quick and incisive and the rest of the huge cast of these stories are given individual characters as much by the reading as by Conan Doyle’s words.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi

If you have never read the stories and this is your first experience, I envy you! This combination of the master storyteller and the wonderful narration is a joy. Excitement, humour, horror and fear all await you…Highly recommended.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It is available as either a disc set or an Audible download in the UK, but appears to be available only as an Audible download in the US.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

SHBaskervilles.inddThe dog that DID bark in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

AudioGo production – running time 6hrs 25 mins

While I love the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I have always felt the long stories were greatly superior. Conan Doyle took the opportunity afforded by greater space and time to devise plots that allowed him to show his masterly skill for telling thrilling adventure stories to their best advantage.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi
And for me, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of them all. It has everything: a dramatic setting, a family curse, an evil villain and best of all the terrifying and possibly supernatural hound itself. This is also the story that concentrates most on Watson, the human side of the partnership. We see his doggedness, his loyalty, his courage and, in this story more than the others, we also see his intelligence. It’s just possible that I prefer Watson to Holmes…

Derek Jacobi’s reading is superb on this AudioGo production. I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it better. His Watson is bluff and warm-hearted, his Holmes is incisive and each of the other characters is given a distinctive voice. Without spoiling the plot (because I so hope there are some lucky people out there who’re coming to this story for the first time), when the book reaches its terrifying climax, the sheer horror that Jacobi gets into his voice deserves any acting accolades available. Spine-shivering, hair-raising, marvellous stuff – very highly recommended.

Hound drawing

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