Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is generally knownfor a series of crime stories about a “consulting detective,” one whonearly was called Sherringford—or even I. or J. Sherringford—Holmes. Happily,Conan Doyle avoided this madness and settled on Sherlock; he thus created themost famous fictional character in modern literature. Of course, some wouldsay, Agatha Christie among them, that it was the idea of the detective’ssidekick—sturdy, reliable Dr. John H. Watson (who came close to being saddledwith the name Ormond Sacker)—that revealed Conan Doyle’s true genius.
Membersof the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London wouldcertainly, and rightly, argue about my use of the adjective “fictional”and the verb “created.” After all, 2011 marks the 100thanniversary of Ronald Knox’s “Studies in the Literature of SherlockHolmes,” the paper (and later essay) which loosely inaugurated what issometimes referred to as “the Grand Game.” To play that game requiresone to acknowledge that the Victorian era’s most dynamic duo actually lived andthat the 56 “stories” and four “novels”—the so-called Canonor Sacred Writings—are in fact a collection of somewhat jumbled historicaldocuments, requiring close study, dexterous chronological adjustments, andwell-argued commentary. (To learn more, please check out the website of theBaker Street JournaI or the several websites associatedwith Sherlock Holmes.)
Strangelyenough, Conan Doyle never thought that highly of his Sherlockian stories. Hewas naturally grateful for the money and fame they brought him, but always feltthat his historical fiction, especially TheWhite Company and Sir Nigel, wouldbe his main claim to a place in English literature. He was wrong about that,though George MacDonald Fraser—the creator of Flashman—ranks these medievalswashbucklers just below the chivalric romances of Alexandre Dumas and WalterScott.
In truth,though, most modern readers have probably only read one other Conan Doyle book:The Lost World. Published in 1912, this is thegreat “boy’s adventure” novel about a plateau deep in the SouthAmerican jungle inhabited by dinosaurs and savage ape-men. Conan Doyle wasimmensely fond of its hero, Professor George Edward Challenger, and actuallydressed up for photographs as the choleric, heavily bearded scientist. Heeventually brought Challenger back for further (and less satisfying) adventuresin The Poison Belt and two short stories, “Whenthe Earth Screamed” and “The Disintegration Machine.” A lastChallenger novel bears a wonderful title—TheLand of Mist—but islargely an apologia for Spiritualism.
ThatArthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational Holmes and the rabidlyscientific Challenger, actually became an ardent Spiritualist—and even abeliever in fairies—should give us all pause. However, the writer’s biographershave traced a longtime fascination with supernatural matters, one going as farback as his father Charles Doyle and uncle Richard Doyle, both artists whofrequently painted otherworldly creatures. (The latter’s suite of paintingstitled “In Fairyland” established him as arguably the leading fantasyillustrator of the later 19th century.) Once young Arthur started towrite in the 1880s and ’90s, he regularly produced a good deal of what we wouldtoday classify as supernatural horror or contescruels, including that heartbreakingghost story “The Captain of the Pole-Star” and the eerie mummy-tales “LotNo. 249” and “The Ring of Thoth.”
While Conan Doyle could write with masterful ease inmultiple genres, many readers nonetheless believe that his finest set of shortstories are, pace Holmes, two volumesdevoted to the reminiscences of an old Napoleonic soldier: Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (1903). That excellent scholar ofConan Doyle (and much else) Owen Dudley Edwards has called them the finestseries of historical short stories ever written. They are, as George MacDonaldFraser points out in his introduction to the New York Review Books paperbackedition, “a splendid catalog of secretmissions, escapes, love affairs, duels, disguises, pursuits, triumphs, andoccasional disasters,” all of them related in an “inimitable mockFrench style.” The stories clearly helped inspire Fraser’s own brilliantnovels about Harry Flashman, but unlike that notorious cad and coward, EtienneGerard is one of the most likeable and honorable figures in literature.
TheBrigadier is also comically naïve, charmingly vain, and absolutely convincedthat every woman finds him irresistible. After all, is he not the finesthorseman and greatest swordsman in all of France? “Everybody,” hereminds 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 wineof 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. Onedoes not know, one does not understand; the spirit is ever the same, and onedoes not remember how the poor body crumbles. But there comes a moment when itis brought home, when quick as the sparkle of a whirling sabre it is clear tous, 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, Iam your debtor!
And inthe next paragraph we are launched into a glorious tale of yesteryear, forGerard seems to have been regularly summoned by Napoleon when desperate timescalled for the most desperate measures. Threats to the Emperor’s life? Imperialorders that must be carried through enemy lines? State documents to besafeguarded from traitors? An arsenal inside a besieged city that needs to beblown up? Etienne Gerard is the man for the job.
Sometimesthe Brigadier’s reminiscences do read a bit like tall tales, and events quicklygrow madcap whenever our hero encounters the English. The blithely unaware Frenchsoldier 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 theBrigadier Slew the Fox” is a long established classic of humorousmisunderstanding. Yet others, like “How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk”and “How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa,” are thrilling, frenziedwith action, and occasionally even horrifying, as when Gerard discovers that theSpanish have nailed a French spy to a convent wall. (Mickey Spillane wouldlater 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 bethe first to hear them.
A scoreor two of women? Like any Gascon worth his salt, Gerard is not only fierce andhandsome, he loves the ladies—and is soft putty in their hands, though heseldom realizes it. He and his brigade of hussars, he proudly maintains, “couldset 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 outthe only Russian words he knew. “I learned them from little Sophie, atWilna, 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 Cyranothan Don Juan, and he looks back at his youthful romantic adventures withgratitude:
And even as they spoke I saw her in front of us, her sweetface framed in the darkness. I had cause to hate her, for she had cheated andbefooled me, and yet it thrilled me then and thrills me now to think that myarms have embraced her, and that I have felt the scent of her hair in mynostrils. I know not whether she lies under her German earth, or whether shestill 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 thecourse of these stories, Conan Doyle gradually presents a warts-and-allportrait of Napoleon, at the same time making clear the Emperor’s charisma andthe rapt devotion of his soldiers. Nevertheless, the villains are my favoritecharacters in the Exploits and Adventures. When the captured Brigadieris led into the cave headquarters of one Spanish guerrilla leader, thebloodthirsty monster turns out to resemble a benign père de famille, seated among his papers, pen inhand. He hardly notices Gerard at first, so intent is his concentration. “‘Isuppose,’ said he, at last, speaking very excellent French, ‘that you are notable to suggest a rhyme for the word Covillha.'” When Gerard finally huntsdown another freebooter known as the Maréchal de Millefleurs, the scoundrelturns out to be a model of gentlemanly courtesy and nonchalance, even in theface of imminent death: “The Marshal, still pinioned, and with the roperound his neck, sat his horse with a half smile, as one who is slightly boredand yet strives out of courtesy not to show it.”
Unusually,the second installment of these expertly paced and plotted stories is evenbetter than the first. For some reason, though, the NYRB paperback rejiggersboth the Exploits and the Adventures, arranging each volume sothat the escapades follow a roughly chronological order. This makes a certainsense, for Gerard’s heroic deeds embrace the entire history and geography ofthe 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 citieswhich we visited Venice is the most ill-built and ridiculous. I cannot imaginehow 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 theother side, beef. Our hopes, our ideals, our dreams—all were shattered on thatterrible beef of Old England.”
If you know Arthur Conan Doyle as the author of the Sherlock Holmesstories and The Lost World, you alreadyknow that he is one of the best storytellers in the world. While BrigadierGerard will never become a living myth like Holmes, his Exploits and Adventuresreally shouldn’t be missed: “You have seen through my dim eyes,” theold soldier reminds us, “something of the sparkle and splendour of thosegreat days, and I have brought back to you some shadow of those men whose treadshook the earth. Treasure it in your minds and pass it on to your children, forthe memory of a great age is the most precious treasure that a nation canpossess.” Vive l’Empereur!