Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Danger! and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A kitchen-sink collection from the master storyteller
If there’s a better all-around storyteller in the English language than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m not sure who it would be. I know, these days it’s probably more fashionable to drop some modernist’s name into the debate, but I’ll take Conan Doyle’s good old-fashioned fireside storytelling any day. When you step away from his Sherlock Holmes works and dive into one of his other short story collections, you never know what you’re going to get. It could be mystery, medicine, horror, science fiction, espionage, literary parody, or even a children’s story. Danger! and Other Stories, originally published in 1918, delivers all of the above. Overall, this grab-bag may not be Conan Doyle’s best work, but it’s always a joy to wander through this master’s workshop and just marvel at his versatility.

Almost all of these ten stories had been published in The Strand magazine prior to being collected in this volume. The title selection, “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius” is a 1914 story that presages the outbreak of World War I. England declares war on the small European nation of Norland. The minor power retaliates by terrorizing the British Empire with its tiny navy. Conan Doyle wrote the story to warn Britain of a weak spot in her defenses. His choice to tell the story from the point of view of the Norland naval commander is a stroke of genius that injects a dash of humor into this wartime adventure. Another World War I-related tale is “The Prisoner’s Defence.” A British soldier is charged with the murder of his lover. When brought to trial, he recounts to the courtroom how he met and fell in love with the victim, a French woman with a vehement hatred of the Germans. What starts as a courtroom drama turns into a first-class thriller.

“The Horror of the Heights” is a top-notch sci-fi classic that also appears in the collection Tales of Terror and Mystery. “One Crowded Hour” is a fun tale of highway robbery in the early days of the automobile. “The Surgeon of Gaster Fell” offers a mystery with lots of spooky imagery of the remote moors, reminiscent of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle indulges his fascination with the paranormal with “How It Happened,” a macabre tale related by a “writing medium.” The most unusual piece in the book is “The Three of Them,” which transcribes a series of dialogues between a father and his three young children. The topics of conversation range from animals to cricket to God. The subject matter has the potential to be cutesy and annoying, but the way Conan Doyle handles it is quite clever and charming.

Alas, they can’t all be winners. “A Point of View” is a strange little piece of social commentary which discusses the differences in the servant classes of England and America. “The Fall of Lord Barrymore” is a slapstick comedy about a bully nobleman getting his comeuppance. At the bottom of the heap is “Borrowed Scenes,” about a young man who decides to live life in the style of his idol, English novelist and travel writer George Borrow. This consists of asking a lot of bizarre questions and generally acting like an ass. Having never even heard of Borrow before, the humor was lost on me.

Though Conan Doyle doesn’t hit it out of the park with every story, any collection of his short fiction is likely to please more than disappoint, and Danger! is no exception. Its diversity is its biggest strength. Approach this collection ready for anything, and follow the master wherever he leads.

Stories in this collection
Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius 
One Crowded Hour 
A Point of View 
The Fall of Lord Barrymore 
The Horror of the Heights 
Borrowed Scenes 
The Surgeon of Gaster Fell 
How It Happened 
The Prisoner’s Defence 
Three of Them

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