From Michael Dirda's "LIBRARY WITHOUT WALLS" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is generally known for a series of crime stories about a "consulting detective," one who nearly was called Sherringford -- or even I. or J. Sherringford -- Holmes. Happily, Conan Doyle avoided this madness and settled on Sherlock; he thus created the most famous fictional character in modern literature. Of course, some would say, Agatha Christie among them, that it was the idea of the detective's sidekick -- sturdy, reliable Dr. John H. Watson (who came close to being saddled with the name Ormond Sacker) -- that revealed Conan Doyle's true genius.
Members of the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London would certainly, and rightly, argue about my use of the adjective "fictional" and the verb "created." After all, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Knox's "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," the paper (and later essay) which loosely inaugurated what is sometimes referred to as "the Grand Game." To play that game requires one to acknowledge that the Victorian era's most dynamic duo actually lived and that the 56 "stories" and four "novels" -- the so-called Canon or Sacred Writings -- are in fact a collection of somewhat jumbled historical documents, requiring close study, dexterous chronological adjustments, and well-argued commentary.
Strangely enough, Conan Doyle never thought that highly of his Sherlockian stories. He was naturally grateful for the money and fame they brought him, but always felt that his historical fiction, especially The White Company and Sir Nigel, would be his main claim to a place in English literature. He was wrong about that, though George MacDonald Fraser -- the creator of Flashman -- ranks these medieval swashbucklers just below the chivalric romances of Alexandre Dumas and Walter Scott.
In truth, though, most modern readers have probably only read one other Conan Doyle book: The Lost World. Published in 1912, this is the great "boy's adventure" novel about a plateau deep in the South American jungle inhabited by dinosaurs and savage ape-men. Conan Doyle was immensely fond of its hero, Professor George Edward Challenger, and actually dressed up for photographs as the choleric, heavily bearded scientist. He eventually brought Challenger back for further (and less satisfying) adventures in The Poison Belt and two short stories, "When the Earth Screamed" and "The Disintegration Machine." A last Challenger novel bears a wonderful title -- The Land of Mist -- but is largely an apologia for Spiritualism.
That Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational Holmes and the rabidly scientific Challenger, actually became an ardent Spiritualist -- and even a believer in fairies -- should give us all pause. However, the writer's biographers have traced a longtime fascination with supernatural matters, one going as far back as his father Charles Doyle and uncle Richard Doyle, both artists who frequently painted otherworldly creatures. (The latter's suite of paintings titled "In Fairyland" established him as arguably the leading fantasy illustrator of the later 19th century.) Once young Arthur started to write in the 1880s and '90s, he regularly produced a good deal of what we would today classify as supernatural horror or contes cruels, including that heartbreaking ghost story "The Captain of the Pole-Star" and the eerie mummy-tales "Lot No. 249" and "The Ring of Thoth."
While Conan Doyle could write with masterful ease in multiple genres, many readers nonetheless believe that his finest set of short stories are, pace Holmes, two volumes devoted to the reminiscences of an old Napoleonic soldier: Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (1903). That excellent scholar of Conan Doyle (and much else) Owen Dudley Edwards has called them the finest series of historical short stories ever written. They are, as George MacDonald Fraser points out in his introduction to the New York Review Books paperback edition, "a splendid catalog of secret missions, escapes, love affairs, duels, disguises, pursuits, triumphs, and occasional disasters," all of them related in an "inimitable mock French style." The stories clearly helped inspire Fraser's own brilliant novels about Harry Flashman, but unlike that notorious cad and coward, Etienne Gerard is one of the most likeable and honorable figures in literature.
The Brigadier is also comically naïve, charmingly vain, and absolutely convinced that every woman finds him irresistible. After all, is he not the finest horseman and greatest swordsman in all of France? "Everybody," he reminds us, "had heard of me since my duel with the six fencing-masters." Now an old man, he sits in a café, "between his dinner and his dominoes," recalling the glorious days of his youth:
I would have a stronger wine to-night, my friends, a wine of Burgundy rather than of Bordeaux. It is that my heart, my old soldier heart, is heavy within me. It is a strange thing, this age which creeps upon one. One does not know, one does not understand; the spirit is ever the same, and one does not remember how the poor body crumbles. But there comes a moment when it is brought home, when quick as the sparkle of a whirling sabre it is clear to us, and we see the men we were and the men we are. Yes, yes, it was so to-day, and I would have a wine of Burgundy to-night. White Burgundy -- Montrachet -- Sir, I am your debtor!
And in the next paragraph we are launched into a glorious tale of yesteryear, for Gerard seems to have been regularly summoned by Napoleon when desperate times called for the most desperate measures. Threats to the Emperor's life? Imperial orders that must be carried through enemy lines? State documents to be safeguarded from traitors? An arsenal inside a besieged city that needs to be blown up? Etienne Gerard is the man for the job.
Sometimes the Brigadier's reminiscences do read a bit like tall tales, and events quickly grow madcap whenever our hero encounters the English. The blithely unaware French soldier never quite grasps these foreigners and their strange sports and games, but is nonetheless unshakably convinced that he possesses a natural talent, indeed an inherent superiority, at cricket or fox-hunting. "How the Brigadier Slew the Fox" is a long established classic of humorous misunderstanding. Yet others, like "How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk" and "How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa," are thrilling, frenzied with action, and occasionally even horrifying, as when Gerard discovers that the Spanish have nailed a French spy to a convent wall. (Mickey Spillane would later adopt this same method of restraint in one of his Mike Hammer mysteries.) Fortunately, these are all stories for which the world is finally prepared, and "save for two or three men and a score or two of women," you will be the first to hear them.
A score or two of women? Like any Gascon worth his salt, Gerard is not only fierce and handsome, he loves the ladies -- and is soft putty in their hands, though he seldom realizes it. He and his brigade of hussars, he proudly maintains, "could set a whole population running, the women towards us, and the men away." Once, disguised as a Cossack, he tried to avoid capture by Prussians by shouting out the only Russian words he knew. "I learned them from little Sophie, at Wilna, and they meant: 'If the night is fine we shall meet under the oak tree, and if it rains we shall meet in the byre.'" Still, Gerard is more Cyrano than Don Juan, and he looks back at his youthful romantic adventures with gratitude:
And even as they spoke I saw her in front of us, her sweet face framed in the darkness. I had cause to hate her, for she had cheated and befooled me, and yet it thrilled me then and thrills me now to think that my arms have embraced her, and that I have felt the scent of her hair in my nostrils. I know not whether she lies under her German earth, or whether she still lingers, a grey-haired woman in her Castle of Hof, but she lives ever, young and lovely, in the heart and the memory of Etienne Gerard.
Over the course of these stories, Conan Doyle gradually presents a warts-and-all portrait of Napoleon, at the same time making clear the Emperor's charisma and the rapt devotion of his soldiers. Nevertheless, the villains are my favorite characters in the Exploits and Adventures. When the captured Brigadier is led into the cave headquarters of one Spanish guerrilla leader, the bloodthirsty monster turns out to resemble a benign père de famille, seated among his papers, pen in hand. He hardly notices Gerard at first, so intent is his concentration. "'I suppose,' said he, at last, speaking very excellent French, 'that you are not able to suggest a rhyme for the word Covillha.'" When Gerard finally hunts down another freebooter known as the Maréchal de Millefleurs, the scoundrel turns out to be a model of gentlemanly courtesy and nonchalance, even in the face of imminent death: "The Marshal, still pinioned, and with the rope round his neck, sat his horse with a half smile, as one who is slightly bored and yet strives out of courtesy not to show it."
Unusually, the second installment of these expertly paced and plotted stories is even better than the first. For some reason, though, the NYRB paperback rejiggers both the Exploits and the Adventures, arranging each volume so that the escapades follow a roughly chronological order. This makes a certain sense, for Gerard's heroic deeds embrace the entire history and geography of the Napoleonic wars, taking place in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, England, and, finally, on St. Helena. No matter where he finds himself, however, the Brigadier always thinks like a hussar: "Of all the cities which we visited Venice is the most ill-built and ridiculous. I cannot imagine how the people who laid it out thought that the cavalry could maneouvre." As for Waterloo, that plain of sorrows, he writes: "On the one side, poetry, gallantry, self-sacrifice -- all that is beautiful and heroic. On the other side, beef. Our hopes, our ideals, our dreams -- all were shattered on that terrible beef of Old England."
If you know Arthur Conan Doyle as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and The Lost World, you already know that he is one of the best storytellers in the world. While Brigadier Gerard will never become a living myth like Holmes, his Exploits and Adventures really shouldn't be missed: "You have seen through my dim eyes," the old soldier reminds us, "something of the sparkle and splendour of those great days, and I have brought back to you some shadow of those men whose tread shook the earth. Treasure it in your minds and pass it on to your children, for the memory of a great age is the most precious treasure that a nation can possess." Vive l'Empereur!