Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Captain of the Polestar, and Other Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



A master of many genres
Originally published in 1890, The Captain of the Polestar, and Other Tales was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first book of short stories. The ten stories in this collection share no common theme and cover a variety of genres: horror, science fiction, thrillers, romance, and even a Western of sorts. Stylistically, the tales run the gamut from frighteningly suspenseful to heartbreakingly touching to laugh-out-loud funny. Overall, it’s a remarkably good collection of fiction that provides a diverse and entertaining sampling of Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes work.

The title selection is a nautical adventure about a whaling ship that’s nearly icebound in the waters of the Arctic. Despite the impending danger of being trapped for the winter, the obsessed captain refuses to turn South. Meanwhile the superstitious crew claims the vessel is being visited by a supernatural being. This is a well-handled, suspenseful tale, though the ending proves a bit predictable. Faring better is the excellent thriller “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” A ship named the Marie Celeste is found adrift with no signs of life on board. Ten year’s later, the title character claims to be a surviving passenger and narrates the ship’s last fateful voyage. Conan Doyle handles the plot masterfully, revealing secrets bit by bit. Unfortunately, the plot revolves around racial paranoia, but it comes across as a sort of 19th century take on Django Unchained.

“The Great Kleinplatz Experiment” is a soul-switching story along the lines of Freaky Friday. I’m not sure if Conan Doyle originated this genre, but he squeezes every bit of comic juice possible from the premise. Another great story, “The Man from Archangel,” is narrated by a surly misanthrope who inherits a godforsaken stretch of Scottish coastline. He revels in his solitude until a shipwreck casts mysterious visitors upon his shores. “John Huxford’s Hiatus” is a touching romance about a couple whose matrimonial plans are interrupted when the man must relocate to Canada for work. “John Barrington Cowles,” like Conan Doyle’s novel The Parasite, is a psychological thriller about an evil woman with a domineering will.

Not every selection is a masterpiece. “That Little Square Box” attempts to be a Hitchcockian espionage thriller but falls flat at the end. In “Cyprian Overbeck Wells—A Literary Mosaic,” Conan Doyle wonders what would happen if Britain’s literary greats all joined forces to collaborate on an exquisite corpse of a novel. It’s an ambitious piece, but you probably really have to be a knowledgeable student of English lit to fully appreciate all the humorous touches in Conan Doyle’s parody. Personally, I found it rather dull. Also on the slow side is “Elias B. Hopkins, the Parson of Jackman’s Gulch.” This could be classified as a Western, though it takes place in an Australian mining camp. Like the stories of Bret Harte, it’s mostly a study of quirky characters and the sparse plot is almost an afterthought. Luckily, the collection ends on a high note with “The Ring of Thoth,” a spooky archaeological thriller concerning an Egyptologist who spends a night in the museum after dark.

Despite the book’s few low points, this volume really showcases Conan Doyle’s talent and versatility. This is the best of his non-Holmes collections that I’ve read thus far. It proves once and for all that even had he never invented Holmes, he would still be the king of British pulp fiction.


Stories in this collection
The Captain of the “Pole-Star” 
J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement 
The Great Kleinplatz Experiment 
The Man from Archangel 
That Little Square Box 
John Huxford’s Hiatus 
Cyprian Overbeck Wells—A Literary Mosaic 
John Barrington Cowles 
Elias B. Hopkins, The Parson of Jackman’s Gulch 
The Ring of Thoth 

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