Arthur Conan Doyle: Round the Fire Stories


This is a group of stories originally published individually in Strand Magazine (and other magazines), and in book form first in 1908. A subset of seven stories were recently republished under the title Tales for a Winter’s Night, and I think overall the editors of the republication did pick the stronger bits of the lot.

Conan Doyle’s preface reads:

“In a previous volume, ‘The Green Flag,’ I have assembled a number of my stories which deal with warfare or with sport. In the present collection those have been brought together which are concerned with the grotesque and with the terrible — such tales as might well be read “round the fire” upon a winter’s night. This would be my ideal atmosphere for such stories, if an author might choose his time and place as an artist does the light and hanging of his picture. However, if they have the good fortune to give pleasure to any one, at any time or place, their author will be very satisfied.”

 

~~ Warning: Spoilers ahead! ~~

The Leather Funnel: A story that was new to me; set in Paris: historical fiction meets supernatural / horror (and Dumas père fans will recognize the name of one of the characters). Of the lot I hadn’t known yet, one of the stronger entries; for atmosphere alone.
The Beetle Hunter: Very similar to the Sherlock Holmes story The Creeping Man (which is one of the few entries in the Holmes canon that I positively loathe). This one was somewhat predictable if you know the Holmes story, but far better — not least because it’s not quite as much “out there”. It still won’t ever become a favorite … no story featuring creepy crawlies will be (except for The Speckled Band, that is).
The Man with the Watches: A reread. Not one of my favorite stories, chiefly because the solution comes straight out of left field (and is one of Conan Doyle’s more implausible creations, but then, that is true for most of the stories in this collection.)
The Pot of Caviare: More thriller than mystery; again the atmosphere is well-drawn (if you like colonial war stories, which I find I have increasingly little taste for). Somehow ACD managed to tie together both of the foreseeable endings, which did make for a bit of a twist at the end.
The Japanned Box: Also more thriller than mystery, with a good bit of melodrama thrown in for good measure — the kind of tale I’d easily have expected from the Brontës if the technology relied upon in the solution had already been at their disposition).
The Black Doctor: Another reread, also not a huge favorite; even if I respect what Conan Doyle is trying to do in terms of race relations here.
Playing with Fire: New to me: I’d call it supernatural, except that to Conan Doyle it probably wasn’t — or not entirely. The very kind of thing that Dorothy L. Sayers mercilessly mocks in Strong Poison.
The Jew’s Breastplate: Also new to me; [the back story reminded me a bit of The Beryl Coronet (though that story is marginally better). (hide spoiler)]
The Lost Special: A reread; even when I read it for the first time I wondered how these events could possibly have happened without anybody becoming aware of them (over a period of several years, at that) — revisiting the story hasn’t made that any clearer to me. The story’s most notable element is a letter to the editor by an unnamed “amateur reasoner of some celebrity”, who opens his cogitations with the statement that “[i]t is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning … that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth.” (The story dates from one of the years when a certain Norwegian named Sigerson was, among other exploits, “amusing himself” by visiting Lhasa and spending some time with the head Lama.)
The Club-Footed Grocer: New to me; a pretty dark tale — more thriller than mystery — but I rather liked it for its gritty realism.
The Story of the Sealed Room: This batch’s final reread for me; more horror than mystery. Yet, set in the real world … and again I’m wondering how the conclusion can possibly have worked without anybody becoming aware of what was in the room. (Even in a photo studio, as long as no actual bath in formaldehyde is involved, the smell of rotting flesh alone should have given the contents of the room away. Conan Doyle describes a mummified corpse, but as the room wasn’t hermetically sealed, I don’t see that happening.)
The Brazilian Cat: Again more thriller than mystery. Rather predictable, all told, though the night in the cage — however improbable its course — is well told.
The Usher of the Lea House School: (aka The English Tutor) Also more thriller than mystery, very much in the spirit of Wilkie Collins.
The Brown Hand: Conan Doyle does Wilkie Collins meets supernatural.
The Fiend of the Cooperage: And while we’re at it: Conan Doyle does Joseph Conrad. And he definitely had a thing for monster snakes — though neither here nor in The Speckled Band a necessarily well-informed one.
Jelland’s Voyage: Another thriller; a bit predictable but also one of the stories that, all told, I rather liked.
B.24: Also new to me and for its tone and narrative approach alone, my favorite of the lot.  Conan Doyle‘s interest in cases of unjust conviction clearly comes to the fore here — and I love that he kept the ending open. 

 

 

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