Monday, March 25, 2013

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Takes forever to get where it’s going
The Mystery of Cloomber is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novels. Though it was not published until 1889, after he had achieved some fame with his first Sherlock Holmes book, this novel was actually written a few years prior to the debut of the famous detective. In this early work one can see the promise of things to come in Conan Doyle’s illustrious career, but it does not stand out among his oeuvre as an exceptional piece of work.

As the title indicates, this is a mystery novel, but unlike the Holmes stories this tale has a rather Gothic feel, complete with supernatural occurrences. The book is narrated by John Fothergill West, a young man who moves with his family from the city of Edinburgh to the country estate of Branksome, a remote outpost on the desolate moors of Scotland. Soon after their arrival, the West family gets some new neighbors when General Heatherstone and his family move into the long-vacant Cloomber Hall, about a mile from Branksome. The General’s behavior, however, is anything but neighborly. He shuts himself and his family up in the tower of Cloomber and refuses to socialize. West eventually learns that the family has some deep, dark secret, and General Heatherstone lives in fear of an inevitable and impending doom. What terrible secret could this mysterious man be hiding?

For most of the book, West’s investigative strategy for solving the mystery consists of pleading with members of the Heatherstone family to reveal their secret, which they adamantly refuse. The mystery seems to be related to the General’s military service in the Afghan War, but Conan Doyle does a poor job of doling out clues. Rather than revealing just enough information to keep the reader in suspense, Conan Doyle gives away only enough to engender boredom. Nothing much happens in the book until chapter 11, at which point it does become more interesting as it ventures into the realm of Eastern mysticism.

Though the idea behind the story is quite good, the execution is disappointing. Conan Doyle’s talent for crafting vivid narration and spirited dialogue are definitely on display here, but the book sorely lacks in its plotting. It becomes clear early on that the author is going to make the reader wait until the second last chapter to reveal General Heatherstone’s wartime back story and then close with an epilogue. All the prior chapters are just filler you have to wade through to get to the meat of the matter. One sees a similar structure in the early Holmes novels as well, but to a less obvious extent. Conan Doyle quickly improved and made great leaps and bounds in the advancement of the mystery genre. Unfortunately, The Mystery of Cloomber is an embryonic stage in that development, and feels clumsy in comparison to the master’s later, greater works. Fans of the Holmes mysteries or Conan Doyle’s writing in general will not hate this book, but it does inspire ambivalence.

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