Friday, April 28, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Africa by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, et al.

A pretty good collection of adventure fiction
H. Rider Haggard
This is the seventh book I’ve read and reviewed in the ten-volume Stories by English Authors series, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. As the one-word subtitle of this volume indicates, all the stories included here are set in Africa. Before starting the book, I was worried I might be in for a lot of Dark Continent clichés and racial stereotypes, but for the most part my misgivings were unfounded. If anything, the natives suffer more from neglect than insult, as almost all the main characters in these stories are British. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the exotic locale, this collection is more focused on adventure fiction than the other volumes in this series, and that works to its advantage. This Africa volume is one of the best books that I’ve encountered yet in the Stories by English Authors series, perhaps second only to the volume on Germany and Northern Europe.

When you’re putting together a collection of short stories, you can’t ask for a much better lead-off hitter than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley” may not be one of his best efforts, but it’s still a cut above the usual fare one encounters in this series. Two British friends, down on their luck in South Africa, hear a legend about a demon with glowing eyes and decide to investigate. Conan Doyle is a master storyteller, even when the story is pretty thin, and this one certainly is. Faring better is another classic author of African adventure, H. Rider Haggard. His story “Long Odds” stars Allan Quartermain, the hero from King Solomon’s Mines. The aging adventurer relates a story of how he hunted down a family of lions as retribution for their having killed his oxen. This exciting hunting story may defy belief at times, but it’s great fun.

In “King Bemba’s Point” by J. Landers, a young Englishman goes to work as assistant to the factor at a southeast African trading post. This one follows a familiar formula and telegraphs its surprise ending far in advance, but the details are well executed, and it sufficiently entertains. Yet another good entry is William Charles Scully’s “Ghamba.” A young Englishman in South Africa strikes up a friendship with a rather creepy old native named Ghamba, who informs him of the whereabouts of a wanted criminal who is hiding in a mountain cave. The hero enlists his American friend to help him capture the villain for reward money. This story includes violence and elements of horror that push it into pulp fiction territory, making for a fun read.

After four strong entries the collection takes a turn for the worse with “Mary Musgrave,” an anonymous tale of a woman’s effect on a South African mining camp. After that, the final third of the volume is occupied by a twelve chapter novella, Gregorio, by Percy Hemingway. This is an operatic tragedy about a poverty-stricken Greek man in Alexandria, Egypt, who must resort to desperate measures to feed his wife and son. It’s a very engaging and well-structured narrative, but it’s depressingly bleak and far from politically correct in its racial characterizations. It is a work of middling literary quality that inspires mixed emotions.

Overall, the Stories by English Authors series has been disappointing, but this volume is actually pretty good. Anyone interested in vintage adventure fiction, particularly of the African variety, will find its contents decently entertaining.

Stories in this collection
The Mystery of Sasassa Valley by Arthur Conan Doyle 
Long Odds by H. Rider Haggard
King Bemba’s Point by J. Landers 
Ghamba by William Charles Scully
Mary Musgrave by Anonymous 
Gregorio by Percy Hemingway

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