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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TBR Thursday 220…

Episode 220

I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid… 

Here are a few more I’ll be unpacking soon…

History

Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…

The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…

Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.

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Dickens at Christmas

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…

The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.

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Vintage Crime

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.

With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.

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Fiction

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…

The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!