Thursday, June 12, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known, of course, for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but he also authored some fascinating historical fiction, including two novels of medieval knighthood - The White Company and Sir Nigel - and a series of short-stories that are actually my favorite of all his works, featuring Brigadier Etienne Gerard, a commander of Hussars in Napoleon’s army. These tales are shot through with a marvelous sense of humor – sometimes uproarious – that may surprise readers whose acquaintance with Conan Doyle’s work is limited to the Holmes and Watson stories. Brigadier Gerard is a gallant, courageous and loyal officer who is also extraordinarily vain and, while frequently exposed to the perils of war, is never in danger of being accused of possessing a towering intellect. The stories combine a thoroughgoing knowledge of the Napoleonic wars with the author’s highly inventive imagination of realistic incidents, the whole topped off with the hero’s admixture of sterling virtues and comical flaws - all against the backdrop of the perpetual state of bafflement which existed between the French soldier and his English counterpart in their usually desultory and frequently futile attempts to understand one another’s alien ways, across a cultural chasm far wider than the mere physical barrier of the English Channel. The yarns are filled with secret missions, serendipitous captures, impossible escapes and hilarious misadventures (the scene in one of the stories in which Gerard escapes from an English prison and accidentally gets caught up in a foxhunt is practically Wodehousian in its zaniness).

The stories are currently available from Barnes & Noble, as well as from other booksellers, if you care to take the plunge.


cac said...

Good to see these lesser known works of Conan Doyle getting a mention. The White Company and Sir Nigel were of course the ones he wanted to be his legacy but the public kept on hankering after Holmes.

I think the particular genius of the Gerard stories is the way his character (perfectly captured by Paco) comes out even though they are all told in the first person. Gerard himself is totally unaware of his limitations but we the readers can see them perfectly through his descriptions.

Paco said...

Cac: Absolutely first-rate observation.

Brett said...

Man, I am green with envy at the sight of those shelves. The sight of good books I've not read gives me the same tingle Chris Matthews gets when he sees Obama.

Paco said...

Brett: And that's just a portion of the downstairs library! Bwahaha!

Seriously, though, I know just how you feel. There is a used book shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina - called, cleverly, "The Book shop" - which has tens of thousands of books, and I get exactly the kind of tingle you're talking about every time I enter it. I remember the electrifying experience I had one time when I found on one of the store's dusty shelves an out-of-print book for which I had searched fruitlessly for 12 years. Sheer bliss!

Minicapt said...

Brigadier Gerard=> ? => Flashman


TimT said...

I've just brought Conan-Doyle's 'The Lost World', and am looking forward more than anything to reading it, not having previously encountered anything of his. (Though I have read around a bit in the 19th century adventure/sf genre, so I won't be picking it up as an absolute greenhorn.)

cac said...

“Gerard -> ? -> Flashman.”?

Up to a point. The late (and sadly missed GMF) acknowledged Gerard as one of his influences and I believe actually provided the forward to some reprints of the adventures of the Brigadier.

It’s an interesting thought though about the differences between the two. I suspect both would have seen by the world as essentially the same: bluff, brave to the point of being suicidal, competent soldiers although none too bright, perhaps cannon fodder rather than being suited for high command. But of course Gerard really was all these things while Flashy certainly was not. I also suspect that Gerard, being not overly bright would have taken Flashy at face value and embraced him as a brother. Flashman of course would have loathed Gerard as an idiot and valued him only to the extent that he could leave him to die in the face of the enemy as he escaped.

To return though to my earlier point, we know Flashman’s character because he tells us and part of the joy of those books is that no one else does. In Gerard’s case though the only thing he knows about himself with any accuracy is that he’s brave. He is completely unaware that he’s thick as a plank and something of a figure of fun to all the other characters. Being at work (well, it’s Friday arvo here down under) I can’t locate the exact passage but it’s something to the effect that Gerard, having been given a mission goes on at length about the glory of battle (which he sincerely believes) until he’s ushered out by the general who is unable to contain his emotions (or so Gerard believes). Of course the general has had enough of this braggart and wants to be rid of him.

Incidentally, those allergic to spending money should note that all of the Gerard stories are on Gutenberg.

My two favourite Conan Doyle stories though are “the Green Flag” and “A straggler of 15”. The first is basically Conan Doyle struggling with his Irish nationalist versus imperial unionist side while the second is a portrait of the last surviving member of the Guards from Waterloo.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paco,

The "Sir Nigel" would it be about the same "Sir Nigel Loring" mentioned in the White Company?

I have the latter and it's not too bad.

Strangely I never read any of the SH stories!


Anonymous said...

Hi again, never mind my question about Sir Nigel, I found it as a free Ebook.

And yes it is the same Sir Nigel Loring.

Ps there are many other free Ebooks available there, including The White Company.
Don't know, how much "Readers Digetised" (sic) they are?
Will download the White company for comparison.


kc said...

I love the view of part of your library. Mine is much smaller than it would be if...well, if I had more room, more money, more inclination... Most of my books are paperback, not that I don't value Real Books, but I don't really care to have the first signed copy ever printed. I don't have autographs of some relatively famous people I used to know, I guess I'm not a collector of anything much at all. A few of the books that came out of the country school where I went to first grade & some older model (50's & 60's) cookbooks is about my limit. And living in the size house I do, this is a GOOD thing.

Told My Chief about the Gerard stories, he'll probably be looking them up in the near future, so Thank You for the heads-up!

RebeccaH said...

Love your library, Paco. I have a similar one, not quite so neatly organized, full of the mysteries, scifi, and historical literature I love, as well as tons of reference books on all kinds of subjects, as well as the complete Writer's Digest library on how to write crime fiction. All of it crammed into some old six-shelf Sauders that are a hundred years old (I exaggerate by a few decades, but you get the idea).

I'll have to check out Conan Doyle's non-Holmes stories.

Minicapt said...

Read "The White Company" then "Sir Nigel"; in the latter, Sir Nigel spends much of his time remembering the past and being quixotic, much to the dismay of his squire. You need the background of the first novel in order to track Sir Nigel's various gestes.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the feed back.

I read the "White Company" a few times, (mainly out of necessity, being the only book I've taken along on a trip that took a lot longer, than planned)
It's probably not to everyones taste, but I like SF and adventure stories, but not too fond of whodunnits.

Pam, my wife, and my sister are crazy about those, and it's a constant friction between us when it comes to TV.
Luckily I am very tolerant, and I also have a shed with a fridge and a TV!


Wimpy Canadian said...

Paco, here is a mystery worthy of Sir Sherlock:

Of interest is the 5th foot; it is a left foot, the others were all right feet! Now, which dog didn't bark?