Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 3

Part three of the reading marathon of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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So far I have read the first two novels and the first two sets of short stories, this takes us up to the disappearance of Holmes in “The Final Problem” where Sherlock apparently fell to his death from the Reichenbach Falls whilst combating Professor Moriarty.  This had been printed in December 1893 and there the stories appeared to end. In August 1901 however a new Sherlock Holmes story appeared, although set before the events in “The Final Problem”; “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was serialised over the following eight months in the Strand magazine and by the end the clamour for more Holmes stories was irresistible regardless of how much Doyle claimed he didn’t want to write any more he had opened the floodgates and was swept along. Again there are minor spoilers below as it is difficult to review the stories without having them but no plot resolutions are included.

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of thirteen short stories originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1903 and 1904, the collection was first published in book form 1905 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Empty House
  • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
  • The Adventure of the Dancing Men
  • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
  • The Adventure of the Priory School
  • The Adventure of Black Peter
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
  • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
  • The Adventure of the Three Students
  • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
  • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
  • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
  • The Adventure of the Second Stain

Although Holmes had been away from print for eight years Dr. Watson makes it quite clear in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that he had actually vanished for just three years as this story is set in 1894. In this tale he explains his absence as he needed to be in hiding from members of Moriarty’s gang who wanted to avenge their leaders death, for indeed he had died in the incident at the falls at the end of the last book. To this end Holmes had been travelling the world, including a significant amount of time in Tibet in the guise of a Norwegian called Sigurdson. By the time he introduces himself to Watson again only one danger remains at large and he seeks assistance in dealing Colonel Moran who will probably try to assassinate him that very evening. The capture of Moran, in a more dramatic manner than Holmes intended, does indeed occur that night and the two men return to Baker Street to renew their friendship.

Also in the first tale we learn that Mary has died and Watson is again alone. At the start of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” Watson has been persuaded by Holmes to sell his medical practice and move back in to 221b Baker Street. So Doyle has got rid of the awkward plot narratives of the second set of short stories where one of them needed to go to fetch, or visit, the other before things could happen. All the stories where a date is identifiable are set after Holmes return and Watson comments that they represent a tiny fraction of the cases handled in the ten years since 1894. But again Doyle is clearly planning to stop writing about our favourite detectives as he has Watson explain at the start of “The Adventure of the Second Stain”.

I had intended “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man. The real reason lay in the reluctance which Mr. Holmes has shown to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him; but since he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in this matter should be strictly observed.

It was only because the last tale had apparently been promised earlier that Holmes allows it to be told. The stories in this collection are nearly all good reads, only one as far as I am concerned, “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter”, fails in this regard and as it is one of the shortest examples it doesn’t really let down the book as a whole. Speaking of length I should really have checked how many pages I have to read this week to maintain the schedule, this book is 311 pages, next comes 195 pages and then 241 making a total of 747 and I also have to write around 3000 words, this is tight.

Two of the stories, “The Norwood Builder” and “The Golden Pince-Nez” rely on very similar solutions to the big reveal although they are handled differently and both are excellent tales.  “The Norwood Builder” also has a reference to the uniqueness of fingerprints which Holmes states that he has heard of. This story is set in 1894 so this was very new at the time as it was only in 1892 that the first book on the possible use of fingerprints for criminal detection was published. “The Dancing Men” is another example of Holmes defeating an American gangland member in this case by breaking what is actually quite a simple cypher. We also have several tales that revolve around the English nobility, two of which “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Second Stain” are blackmail cases where a lady’s indiscreet letters from before her marriage are to be sent to her husband or else. These very much rely on the strict Victorian morals to make much sense nowadays as a basis for murder. “Black Peter” has an interesting misdirection in the clues presented to us whilst “The Three Students” has, as the title suggests, just three possible malefactors, in this case which of the three students took an opportunity to cheat by copying the paper for an exam they were about to sit.

All in all this was an excellent collection of stories but there will now be another, although shorter, break in Doyle writing any more Holmes and Watson tales as yet again he tries to bring the series to an end.

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His Last Bow

Six of the stories included in this volume were originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1908 and 1913, one other from 1892 (the Cardboard Box) had appeared in the first edition of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” but was dropped from some further editions and the title story was first published by Collier’s in 1917; the complete collection was published in 1917 and with just eight tales it is the shortest of the anthologies:

  • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
  • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
  • The Adventure of the Red Circle
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
  • The Adventure of the Dying Detective
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
  • His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

The book starts with a preface by Dr. Watson which reinforces his comments at the start of the previous volume.

The friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism. He has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture. During this period of rest he has refused the most princely offers to take up various cases, having determined that his retirement was a permanent one. The approach of the German war caused him, however, to lay his remarkable combination of intellectual and practical activity at the disposal of the Government, with historical results which are recounted in His Last Bow. Several previous experiences which have lain long in my portfolio have been added to His Last Bow so as to complete the volume.

John H. Watson, M.D

These asides to the reader are great fun and add to the realism of the two characters. The self awareness of the two men, with Holmes regularly complaining in the stories about the ‘sensationalism’ in Watson’s writing up of his cases, is one of the things that make the Sherlock Holmes stories so different from anything else and make them far more engaging personalities. I’ve been looking forward to getting to this collection as ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’ is one of my favourites of the tales.

The oddest part of this sequential reading is something I hadn’t noticed before and that is just how much the first few pages of ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ are almost identical to that of ‘The Resident Patient’ in the edition that I have. It appears that Doyle was rather fond of ‘the mind reading experiment’ that Holmes performs on Watson in that section and when the Cardboard Box was not included in subsequent editions of ‘The Memoirs’ collection he simply rewrote the start and tacked it onto the other story.  Whilst reading this volume just a few days later however it was immediately clear that I had read those four pages before, if with slight changes. Editions exist with both stories in the same book and when that is the case ‘the mind reading’ only happens in The Cardboard Box, this was confirmed by my Catalan friend Mixa as her copy does indeed have both tales. However on with the review of the stories as told in this volume.

The first story along with ‘The Red Circle’ feature Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard whom we have only previously heard of at that rank in ‘The Greek Interpreter’ from ‘The Memoirs’, although he also is a main character in the first Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’. In that work he was really just a foil to Holmes’ brilliance as he is regularly being shown to be wrong in his deductions. In ‘The Greek Interpreter’ he was very much a bit part but now he has come on in leaps and bounds. In ‘Wisteria Lodge’ he follows his own enquiries, which in previous Holmes novels would result in whichever official detective is involved being shown the error of their ways before long, but in this case he works out the solution just as Holmes does. In ‘The Red Circle’ he is actually working on the same case but from a completely different angle and the two men only become aware of the others involvement at the denouement. Having a Scotland Yard detective proving to be just as good as Holmes at following the clues is a pleasant change so both stories have a lot to recommend them even before they prove to be excellent mysteries. The Cardboard Box is the weakest story in the collection which is probably why Doyle felt safe in extracting its start as he probably assumed it wouldn’t end up being reprinted. he had no expectation of writing more stories about Holmes when the book was published and it would be a shame to waste the best bit of the tale.

Next comes ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’, I like this because there are two mysteries in one which have to be solved, who stole the plans and what did they do with them? along with how did the body of the main suspect, Arthur Cadogan West, come to be where it was found? The answer to the first proves to be rather simpler than the second but is also the last to be revealed. The structure of the short story draws the reader along in a very satisfying way. In ‘the Dying Detective’ Holmes already knows the solution to the case from the start and we instead follow his trap for the murderer and his explanation at the end is the first we get to know about what he has been working on. A very nice twist to the narrative structure which shows Doyle’s mastery of his craft at this stage of his career.

Another variant is seen in ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ this time instead of Holmes being the detective he sends Watson off on a chase around Europe looking for the missing lady only to eventually become exasperated by his failure to catch up with her and have to get involved after all. They jointly rescue her, but with only minutes to go. ‘The Devil’s Foot’ is one of those tales which I thought we had seen the last of as it is based around a narcotic with unusual properties that Doyle has invented. This means that the reader can have no real feel for the story as the solution is hidden in a fantasy product.

Finally we come to the title story, written much later than the other works, it has Holmes pulled out of retirement a couple of years before the First World War by the urging of the Prime Minister to crack a German spy network before they can obtain military secrets which would assist them greatly in the expected conflict. This he duly does although only just in time as it takes him a lot of that time to infiltrate the organisation. It has a very different feel to any previous Holmes and Watson story and definitely gave the impression that Holmes will at last be allowed to disappear into retirement this time for good, although of course the existence of another volume on my shelf means that this wasn’t to happen.

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The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories originally printed in various magazines between 1921 and 1927, the collection was first published in book form 1927 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
  • The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
  • The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
  • The Adventure of the Three Gables
  • The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
  • The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
  • The Problem of Thor Bridge
  • The Adventure of the Creeping Man
  • The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
  • The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
  • The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place
  • The Adventure of the Retired Colourman

Doyle by this time has stopped having Watson saying this will be the last collection and instead wrote an introduction under his own name where he acknowledges the significance of the story arc and finally recognises that it hasn’t really detracted from what he sees as his more ‘serious’ work but there will be no more and this time he means it. Let us however start with what must be the worst of the Holmes stories in any collection ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ just to get it out of the way. I have no compunction in revealing that this case is based on the nonsensical concept that the taking of extracts of monkey glands to ‘enhance an older man’s prowess with a much younger lady’ would either work or even more ridiculously lead to him acting like an ape and able to scale sheer walls with the aid of guttering and window ledges just like one and then running round on all fours dragging his knuckles on the ground. Doyle was clearly following one of his madder moments when he wrote this, much like his belief in spiritualism or fairies at the bottom of the garden.

That said the remaining eleven tales are very good. ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’ takes back to familiar territory first trodden with the ‘Red Headed League’ where it is necessary to lure somebody out of their home in order to achieve a nefarious act but with again a twist to make the story interesting although as 33 years separate the writing of the stories it is only when reading them one after another that this becomes so obvious. Two of the tales are written by Holmes rather than Watson, the first ‘The Blanched Soldier’ is apparently because after criticising the good doctor’s style for many years and being told to “Try it yourself, Holmes!” he feels he really ought to have a go. The second, ‘The Lion’s Mane’ is because it occurs well after Holmes’ retirement to the South Coast and Watson is simply not around. Both cases are interesting, although ‘The Lion’s Mane’ has quite an obvious solution right at the beginning and the switching of the narrative style works surprisingly well although Holmes does complain that it makes the writing more difficult.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he would elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy. When I tell my own story I have no such aid.

The other eight cases presented in this final volume are all equally strong and mark a fitting end to the Holmes saga. I particularly enjoyed ‘Thor’s Bridge’ for its ingenious solution and ‘The Sussex Vampire’ also has much to recommend it. The final story was actually ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, printed in April 1927, forty years after the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and three years before the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He would write another novel and several stories and articles for The Strand magazine in the intervening years including an obituary of the cricketer W.G. Grace, but nothing more about his great detective.

Next week I will read the final two novels written well before this final set of stories but it seemed logical that once I had started on the short stories I would carry through to the end and Holmes is nothing but logical.

 

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 2

Continuing reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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Last week I read the first two novels as these preceded the appearance of Holmes in short story format however it is now time to tackle the first twenty three short stories in volumes one and two of the set I have.  The first group of short stories is collectively titled…

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories and in this edition it also has a short introduction by Peter Cushing who played the part of Holmes many times both in film and on television. Originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1891 and 1892, the collection was first published in book form in 1892 and the twelve stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia
  • The Adventure of the Red Headed League
  • The Adventure of a Case of Identity
  • The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips
  • The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

I do not propose to review each story as that would make this blog excessively long and I am also concerned about revealing too much about the plots, but let’s look briefly at each, there may be small spoilers ahead but nothing that gives away solutions. However I do need to answer a question posed at the end of last weeks review, where is Watson? Straight away on the first page of Scandal in Bohemia we find

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.

Watson had indeed moved out and Holmes was now living alone in Baker Street and for the most part the stories in this volume deal with cases after that separation. But the Speckled Band specifically mentions that it occurred before Watson’s marriage to Mary, but only now can Watson reveal it to the world as the lady concerned in the case had passed away. This story also includes the information that some seventy cases had been documented by Watson over the first eight years of his friendship with Holmes so Doyle was clearly already allowing for a significant number of stories to be eventually written even if he didn’t increase the time line any further. The last three tales also relate to the time before Watson’s marriage, The Noble Bachelor specifically states that it occurs a few weeks before he moves out whilst the other two are clearly set whilst the two men are sharing the apartment.

Going back to Scandal in Bohemia, this is the only time that Holmes would be defeated by a woman,  although later on in this book he also admits to three failures against male opponents.  Irene Adler not only bamboozles Holmes but has the nerve to speak to him whilst in disguise outside his own home. so he greatly admires her, keeping a picture of her in 221b Baker Street. The next three tales are a bit of a let down as it is obvious what is going on and who the respective culprits are well before the end however the Five Orange Pips, which is the first ‘old’ tale i.e. before Watson’s marriage and has interest as it is effectively Holmes versus The Ku Klux Klan or at least the remnants of its first incarnation. When Doyle wrote this story the KKK was a thing of the past having effectively died out in the mid 1870’s and it wouldn’t be revived until 1915.

The next three stories, along with the Copper Beeches are my favourites from this set with enough detail given to make it possible to reason along with Holmes as he solves the cases but with enough of a twist to make them interesting. The Engineers Thumb is another where Holmes fails to capture the perpetrators but you do still get a satisfactory resolution to the case however the solution to The Noble Bachelor revolves around the price of a hotel room being high, but it is just given as eight shillings, which a reader from over a century later simply has no idea if that is high, low or a median for London prices at the time. This leaves The Beryl Coronet which frankly has a ridiculous plot device that a banker is worried about a famous treasure being stolen from the safe in his bank so takes it home and locks it in a bureau which has such a poor lock that pretty well any key will spring the drawer, and having first shown it to everyone in the house.

On to the second volume of short stories.

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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Again all the stories were originally printed in The Strand magazine, this time between 1892 and 1893; the collection was first published as a book in 1894 and there are eleven stories included as follows:

  • Silver Blaze
  • The Yellow Face
  • The Stockbroker’s Clerk
  • The Gloria Scott
  • The Musgrave Ritual
  • The Reigate Squires
  • The Crooked Man
  • The Resident Patient
  • The Greek Interpreter
  • The Naval Treaty
  • The Final Problem

I enjoyed this selection rather more than the first, it gets off to a great start with Silver Blaze which is a really good story about a murder and a missing racehorse although the denouement would certainly not be allowed in modern times and I doubt it would have been possible back in the 1890’s either. One of the joys of this collection is that unlike the first there is no obviously weak story, Doyle appears to have gained mastery of the difficult genre of mystery short stories. Considering that the entire tale from setting out the original position, through investigation and then to the conclusion has to be done in such a condensed manner, the eleven cases here average just over 8,100 words each, this is quite a challenge and that all of them work well says a lot about his improved abilities as a writer in this style over the first collection.

There are really just ten cases in this collection as The Final Problem is supposedly written by way of an obituary and description of how Holmes met his death at the Reichenbach Falls whilst fighting Professor Moriarty, but published two years after it happened.  Doyle must have realised that separating his two compatriots was not really a good idea so only three stories are set after Watson married Mary, these are The Stockbrokers Clerk, The Crooked Man and The Naval Treaty. There are also a couple of tales set before Holmes and Watson met (The Gloria Scott and The Musgrave Ritual) where Holmes is telling Watson about the cases which alters the narrative structure. The Gloria Scott is apparently the first ever case that Holmes was consulted on and he clearly enjoys telling the tale. The Musgrave Ritual is his third and is more of a treasure hunt rather than one of his more usual endeavours. I like this structure of the two men just discussing a case in their apartment and I hope there will be more like this in the further books. The other five tales are set during the time whilst the two men are sharing 221b Baker Street.

The Greek Interpreter marks the first appearance of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older and even more astute brother, and is technically another of his few failures as although he saves his client the protagonists get away. The Resident Patient also has the wanted men escape but at least we get to understand what and why they do what they do. Probably the weakest story included is The Stockbrokers Clerk and that would have been fine apart from the fact that the plot is quite similar to The Red Headed League, although the ultimate reason is different.

It is difficult to pick out a favourite, The Yellow Face has an interesting twist at the end and for a change Holmes is not dealing with a crime, just a mysterious circumstance. I also liked the Naval Treaty particularly as it is one of the few examples of Holmes showing a sense of humour along with an urge to be dramatic in his final reveal. I think these have to be joint favourites and as I said at the start of the review of The Memoirs the writing is definitely better than the first collection.

And there this reading marathon of the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson should have ended. Doyle made it quite clear in 1893 that he had no intention of writing any further stories about the duo which is why he killed off his hero in his Final Problem as he wanted his other works to be appreciated more.

However after a break of eight years Holmes would be back…

It remains for me to provide a link to my Catalan friend Mixa’s, reviews of my second weeks books which we read simultaneously. The Google created English translations are readable if not very good English but at least you get the feel for what she wrote.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

 

The Beach of Falesá – Robert Louis Stevenson

I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning.  The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright.  To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond.  The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain

So begins The Beach of Falesá one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s lesser known tales which is set in his beloved South Pacific where he lived from 1888 until his sudden death in 1894 aged just forty four. He is buried in Samoa.

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My edition of this book was published by The Folio Society in 1959 and is illustrated by the wonderful Clarke Hutton who also illustrated many of the Penguin and Puffin books on my shelves. At just under twenty nine thousand words it is more of a novella than a novel, although the Folio edition stretches it to 129 pages including a ten page introduction by H E Bates. The story was originally printed in the Illustrated London News and is normally published along with two much shorter stories (The Bottle Imp and The Isle of Voices) under the title of Island Nights Entertainments. The tale concerns the arrival of John Wiltshire to take up his post as a trader on the island to replace John Adams who had died in mysterious circumstances and how he finds out what is really going on.

Large parts of the book, specifically conversations between the Europeans and the natives are written in Pidgin English which can be off putting at first and it is also assumed that you know what several words that Stevenson would have understood actually mean. For example the main product that the trader is there to collect in payment for his goods is copra – the dried white meat of a coconut used to produce coconut oil. He also refers to the natives as Kanaka which is here used as a generic term for Pacific island workers but originally derives from the indigenous peoples of New Caledonia. Coconut is also spelt throughout as cocoanut which is now an archaic spelling.

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On arrival Wiltshire meets another trader called Case who it turns out will be the main protagonist of the story and it is decided that Wiltshire should have a ‘wife’ to look after him on the island and a native girl Uma is tricked into the role by Case. Because she cannot read English the document that she treasures actually reads…

This is to certify that Uma, daughter of Fa’avao of Falesá, Island of —, is illegally married to Mr. John Wiltshire for one week, and Mr. John Wiltshire is at liberty to send her to hell when he pleases.

John Blackamoar.
Chaplain to the hulks.

Extracted from the Register
by William T. Randall,
Master Mariner.

This clearly indicates the contempt that the white people already on the island hold for the natives, Wiltshire, to his credit, quickly regrets the nature of this and when he meets the missionary gets him to do the marriage properly as he realises that he does love Uma.

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One of the main problems with the book to modern readers is the casual racism which was so common at the time the book was written. The natives are looked upon as little more than children, in fact at one point Stevenson makes this explicit

It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think.  Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka.  There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.

Having said that Stevenson doesn’t portray any of the white men in a particularly positive way, Case is a particularly nasty piece of work and Captain Randall is a gin sodden wreck. The missionary is a reasonable character but Stevenson (through Wiltshire) makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of the work of the missionaries in the islands.

Stevenson nowadays is regarded more as a childrens’ author, with Kidnapped and Treasure Island being his best known works along with a book I still have from my early library A Child’s Garden of Verses. But this at least is definitely aimed at an adult readership.

Island Nights’ Entertainments is available to read on Project Guttenberg via this link

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As I post every Tuesday and 25th December 2018 is a Tuesday then there seems only one book that could be covered for the post going live that day. It’s become an annual tradition for me, I read A Christmas Carol every December and usually watch the 1951 Alistair Sim film Scrooge as well, which for my taste captures the flavour of the book best, it is also the most copied sometimes shot for shot in subsequent adaptations. If you want to see it you may need to buy the DVD as they are pretty good at taking down versions on youtube but at the time of writing this was working. It is particularly good at visualising the original John Leech illustrations, each of which are seen within the film. Now it does take several liberties with the original including inventing a character and moving another from one position to another but it does it without messing with the moral of the tale and it can be excused for adding back story to what is actually barely a novella at 28,857 words or just seventy five pages in the classic Nonsuch Press edition in order to make a film.

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It’s not unreasonable to describe Dickens as the father of the modern Christmas, in his five Christmas books if he didn’t actually invent ‘traditions’ he did at least popularise family gatherings with turkey or goose and revived the moribund celebrations that had come to exemplify his time as people moved to the cities and families spread out losing contact. The Christmas tree was introduced to the UK from Germany by Prince Albert but it was Dickens referring to it in one of his other Christmas books and Leech’s etchings of fir branches decorating the house for the Ghost of Christmas Present that really spread the idea. The hale and hearty feast, the family gathering and the spirit of Christmas (dressed in green as this is before Coca Cola turned things red) a roaring fire and welcome to all, this is what Dickens has given us.

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This isn’t an attempt to review the book, pretty well everyone knows the story and if you don’t you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg. The tale of a miser who comes to understand what Christmas is all about with the assistance of the ghost of his business partner and three spirits representing the past, present and future is the quintessential story for this time of year. The tale of why those that can help others should help others, especially at this time of year is one that bears regular retelling. I have two copies, one is the King Penguin edition which makes a good attempt to look like the original edition and I also have the Duckworth Press volume of all five Christmas Stories.

The original book was published 175 years ago today as I write this, coming out on 19th December 1843 and had sold out by Christmas Eve, it went on to be published in ever increasing numbers but Dickens never made much money from the printed editions. The printing cost was too high for the retail price that Dickens himself insisted on for him to make anything much. It was only when he took it to theatres and read the book as a performance that he started to cover the costs and actually profit from his work.

There is no better way to finish than as Dickens himself ended A Christmas Carol

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

When I was Very Young – A.A. Milne

Although nowadays best known for his stories about his son Christopher Robin and his toys Winnie The Pooh and all the other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, Alan Alexander Milne would rather be known for his other books and plays. He wrote a surprisingly good crime novel (The Red House Mystery) and over 3 dozen plays along with several books of non-fiction. When I was Very Young is one of his rarest works as the only publication of it is the limited edition from The Fountain Press printed in 1930. Just 842 copies were produced and all were signed by Milne on the limitation page at the back of the book, my copy is number 38. The book comes in a plain card slipcase rather than a dust wrapper although this easily damaged and is often missing from copies for sale

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The book consists of five short biographical stories from Milne’s childhood which are written in the first person and probably true as the facts that it is possible to check are accurate, such as H.G. Wells being his science teacher at his first school, where his father was head-master. In the book his two older brothers are called David and John (in reality David Barrett Milne and Kenneth John Milne) and the age differences are correct along with the description of all three having blue eyes and golden hair. There are several illustrations by Ernest Shepard and the pages have the feel of handmade paper with rough edges. It’s short, here are only 23 pages of text along with 2 title pages, one page with the copyright information and the limitation page at the back so it definitely only takes a few minutes to read.

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All of Milne’s Christopher Robin books were also printed as deluxe editions along with several of his plays and other works some of which were also released as signed limited editions. Milne, or at least his agent in America assuming he had one, also seemed to go in for special editions only sold in the USA so there are numerous varieties of some of his titles to collect especially limited editions and pre-signed signed copies. When I was Very Young was not even the first short book by Milne in being initially issued exclusively as such a volume, in 1929 The Fountain Press released The Secret and Other Stories in an edition of 742. The Secret has however since been printed in unlimited modern editions leaving When I was Very Young alone in not being available to a wider readership.

The first page sets the scene

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After this introduction to the boys David isn’t mentioned in the first two tales, it is clear that Alan and John were close playmates though and the two boys shared a bed for many years but David, as the eldest, presumably had his own room. The first tale is a bit odd as it relates to an apparently shared dream of the two boys when they were about 5 years old for them to wake up one morning and find that everyone else in the world was dead.

As soon as we woke up we should know that it had happened; the absence of the governess from our morning toilet, the discovery of her body in the passage between her room and ours – these would be the first signs. Having explored all over the house to make sure that the thing had been done properly, and that there really were no survivors to say “Don’t” we would then proceed to such-and-such, a sweetshop, step over the body of the proprietress and have our first proper breakfast.

There then follows a drawing by Shepard with the boys eating chocolates and sweets in the shop with the corpse in the background.

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Not exactly the gentle Winnie the Pooh type tale you might expect! The second story is considerably less disturbing but none the less would be surprising to us nowadays. The two boys had collected various mineral samples and decided that they wanted to show them to somebody at the Geological Museum (then in Jermyn Street). By now it was 1890 and they were 8 and 9 years old and living in St Johns Wood, which is about 3½ miles (5½ km) from the museum. However their father seemed quite happy to let them go on their own as long as they ‘asked a policeman to help them cross Piccadilly Circus’, one of the most busy and therefore dangerous junctions in the city. They manage the trip, meet the curator who spends time with them looking at their small collection and also shows them round the museum and on their way back buy some matches to strike in their bedroom at night after the lights had gone out.

Two very short reminiscences follow, both featuring all three boys, in the first, inspired by a book called The Golden Key they put on an impromptu (and unscripted) play which turns out to be very short and in the second again after being inspired by a book they decide to be sailors and having lined up in front of their father David explains this to him. After consideration their father explains that “There will be examinations to pass”, at this David promptly gives up on the idea.

The final story moves us forward in time again to 1896 when ‘John’ and Alan were both at Westminster Public School and Alan was 14. Although they were boarding students they were allowed out at weekends providing they had somewhere to stay and this one weekend they were staying at the home of some elderly friends of their father. They had found a firework left over from the bonfire night celebrations and decided to extract the gunpowder from it. After a while a fairly disappointing quantity of powder was tipped out…

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I don’t know why Milne always refers to his brother as John rather than Kenneth or Ken in this short volume, particularly as he always calls him Ken in his book It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer published in 1939 and dedicated as follows; 1880-1929 To the memory of KENNETH JOHN MILNE who bore the worst of me and made the best of me.

Oddly David is called Barry in the autobiography so Alan does like to confuse his readers.

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The signed limitation page at the back of the book

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Fables from the Fountain

OK this one needs a bit of an explanation before we get to the book. Back in 1957 the great science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke published a book of short stories that he had written over the preceding 4 years and had appeared in various places in that time. The stories were all linked as a series of tall tales told in a pub called the White Hart by one of the regulars there, Harry Purvis. I first came across the book in the mid 1970’s when I was about 11 or 12 during a period when I was avidly reading through not only Clarke’s work but that of the other two writers of the ‘big three’ in Sci-Fi, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. At first I wasn’t very interested, I was heavily into Sci-Fi and this was just a group of people in a pub telling stories, mind you some of them have a scientific base and they were funny so I persevered and grew to like the plot twists that were an invariable part of each tale. I no longer have the book, assuming I ever did, it could have been from the library, although I remember the cover well with a giant squid almost covering the pub and I have fond memories of the stories themselves.

I found out many years later that The White Hart was based on a real pub called the White Horse in London where Sci-Fi fans and writers used to meet up in the 50’s. These included John Christopher (The Death of Grass, The Tripods Trilogy etc.), John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Awakes etc.) and of course Arthur C Clarke himself. Appropriately the concept of Fables from the Fountain was dreamt up in a London pub by Ian Whates a few weeks after Clarke’s death in 2008 and the day after the Clarke award ceremony for the best new science fiction novel released in Britain. Whates had founded Newcon Press a couple of years earlier and conceived a homage to Tales from the White Hart with stories by current authors who had all in their own way been inspired by the great innovator that was Sir Arthur C Clarke.

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The various writers in the new book have taken pseudonyms to be characters who meet at the Fountain to swap stories. Unlike the original the tales are given from assorted standpoints, rather than always by Harry Purvis although it’s good to spot references to him in several of the narratives. Because of the nature of the tales it is difficult to say much about them, they are short because of the premise of the book that they are stories told over a pint or two. Some like Neil Gaiman’s brilliant piece are very short at 4½ pages, so it is hard to avoid giving away the twists and turns they manage in so few words. Rereading the book after almost seven years (it was published in May 2011) for this blog  has been an interesting experience, I was surprised by how many I didn’t remember the ending to even if I instantly recognised the pre-amble.

There is high science represented and some truly awful puns, Professor Mackintosh explains how his life was saved by smoking, we find out surprising things about Muscovy Ducks, whilst Heisenburg, Schroedinger and surprisingly even William Blake get name checks. One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot. Whilst another explains the 1908 Tunguska explosion and of course there is the obligatory Area 51 tale without which no collection of stories aimed at SF geeks would be complete.

The full list of stories are as follows, I’ve included the introduction here partly because the book does as well in the numbering of the index and also because Peter Weston’s introduction is definitely worth reading.

  1. Introduction – Peter Weston
  2. No Smoke without Fire – Ian Whates
  3. Transients – Stephen Baxter
  4. Forever Blowing Bubbles – Ian Watson
  5. On the Messdecks of Madness – Paul Graham Raven
  6. The Story Bug – James Lovegrove
  7. “And Weep Like Alexander” – Neil Gaiman
  8. The Ghost in the Machine – Colin Bruce
  9. The Hidden Depths of Bogna – Liz Williams
  10. A Bird in Hand – Charles Stross
  11. In Pursuit of the Chuchunaa – Eric Brown
  12. The Cyberseeds – Steve Longworth
  13. Feathers of the Dinosaur – Henry Gee
  14. Book Wurms – Andy West
  15. The Pocklington Poltergeist – David Langford
  16. The Last Man in Space – Andrew J Wilson
  17. A Multiplicity of Phaedra Lament – Peter Crowther
  18. The Girl With the White Ant Tattoo – Tom Hunter
  19. The 9,000,000,001st Name of God – Adam Roberts

The copy I have is the hardback limited edition (number 61 of 200) and is signed by all 19 writers. At the time of writing the title is still available from Newcon Press, although now only in paperback and not signed from this link.

Now if you’ll excuse me it’s Tuesday; so it’s the get together night at the Fountain, Polish barmaid Bogna will be serving behind the bar and I can hear the call of a pint or three of Old Bodger, although I’ll be careful to avoid the Ploughman’s lunches.

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