Friday, October 25, 2013

Tales of Terror and Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A satisfying and diverse assortment of classic genre fiction
Tales of Terror and Mystery, a collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1923. The twelve stories included here are divided neatly into two categories, with six “Tales of Terror” and six “Tales of Mystery.” Though united by the two genres mentioned in the book’s title, these stories vary widely enough in subject matter to provide a good, diverse sampling of Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes work.

The Tales of Terror are obviously influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, though they feel a little tame by comparison. When reading Poe’s tales one often gets the feeling they were written by an actual psychopath, while Conan Doyle’s tales never let the reader forget he is in the hands of a storyteller skilled in the art of building suspense and delivering chills and thrills. As one would expect from a man with Conan Doyle’s scientific mind, these are not supernatural horror stories. There’s always a rational explanation for the source of the terror. A monster, for example, is the result of evolution, not a demon from hell, but it’s still a scary monster nonetheless. The opening story, “The Horror of the Heights,” is perhaps the book’s best. It focuses on an “aeronaut” in the early days of powered flight. Though maybe not as frightening as some of the other Tales of Terror, it is a wonderful piece of vintage science fiction, with a premise so novel it still shocks you with its ingenuity roughly a century after it was written. Another good offering is “The Brazilian Cat,” which involves a South American jaguar that has been transplanted to an Englishman’s private menagerie. In Conan Doyle’s hands, the natural can be every bit as terrifying as the supernatural.

Under the heading of Tales of Mystery, one finds the Sherlock Holmes-type mystery stories that Conan Doyle is famous for, only without Sherlock Holmes. These stories all seem to share a common format. The first half states the case to be solved and lays out all the evidence in a procedural, just-the-facts manner. Then in the latter half one of the parties involved in the case shows up to explain the whole matter, providing a back story full of human interest. Unfortunately, the endings are often rather predictable, or in some cases even a bit of a cheat to the reader, counteracting information previously given. The result is that the stories are often quite compelling up until the big reveal, which proves to be disappointing. By today’s standards, even many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are not particularly mystifying, but they succeed because of the entertaining repartee between Holmes and Watson. Here, absent such captivating personalities, the success or failure of these stories relies on how much Conan Doyle can get the reader to sympathize with his characters. To that end, the results are mixed. Only one Tale of Mystery really stands out as exceptional. In “The Japanned Box,” a teacher takes up residence at an old rural manor, where he is to act as tutor to the two sons of a rich widower. He soon discovers that his employer has a tumultuous past, and may not in truth be the quiet and reserved gentleman he appears to be. This story works because the ending is not only surprising but also quite touching.

Thanks to the film and television industries, today’s readers are bombarded by countless mystery and horror stories. To such a savvy audience, the plots of most of the tales included here will fail to shock and the endings may fail to surprise. Nevertheless, they benefit from the prose of an expert storyteller. Fans of Conan Doyle will certainly find much to appreciate in this collection. Anyone looking for an introduction to Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes work would do well to read this book.

Stories in this collection
The Horror of the Heights 
The Leather Funnel 
The New Catacomb 
The Case of Lady Sannox 
The Terror of Blue John Gap 
The Brazilian Cat 
The Lost Special 
The Beetle-Hunter 
The Man with the Watches
The Japanned Box 
The Black Doctor 
The Jew’s Breastplate 

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