Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Great Shadow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Coming of age in a time of war
Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best know for his mystery and science fiction writing—in particular, of course, the Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger stories—he was a very prolific author who excelled in a variety of genres. Of all the categories he ventured into, his work in historical fiction is probably the least known to readers of today. One such work, The Great Shadow, published in 1892, is a novel of love and war set in the Napoleonic Era.

Though the mysterious title makes it sound like it might be right at home among the Holmes or Challenger adventures, the shadow in question here is the French Empire, which has been sweeping its way across the map of Europe, enlarging its territory at the expense of those in its path. The narrator of the story is Jock Calder, a middle-aged man looking back upon the days of his youth. In the early 19th century, Jock lived with his parents on the farm of West Inch, situated on the East Coast of Britain. As to where exactly this estate is located, Conan Doyle is quite specific. When Jock settles into bed for the night, his head lies in Scotland while his feet lie in England. Despite this de facto dual citizenship, the boy proudly considers himself a Scot.

When the story opens, Britain is enjoying an interlude of peace. Napoleon Bonaparte has been exiled to the island of Elba, yet memories of the recent war with “Boney” darken the collective British psyche like the metaphorical shadow. It’s almost as if the Britons could predict the French Emperor’s return to action in the near future. Most of the story, however, does not concern itself with war, but rather with Jock’s romantic pursuit of Edie, an orphaned cousin who has come to reside with his family. Then one day a mysterious Frenchman appears on the beach and insinuates himself into the lives of the Calder family. The less said about all this the better. Conan Doyle does a great job of keeping the characters’ motives a secret and punctuating the plot with satisfying surprises. With Napoleon on everyone’s minds, of course, war can’t be far off. The book culminates in a climactic battle scene that calls to mind the military epics of Henryk Sienkiewicz crossed with the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

If you read enough romantic adventure fiction, it all starts to seem rather formulaic and predictable, but here the author adds enough clever touches and unexpected turns to keep the reader guessing. Conan Doyle’s storytelling is captivating and his prose is effortless. By focusing on the lives of Jock, his family, and friends, he wisely avoids the epic perspective in favor of a story more personal and touching. And though he works within the romantic conventions of the adventure genre, the atmosphere he creates feels vividly real throughout, whether it’s the foggy moors of West Inch or the chaotic clash of forces upon the battlefield.

One of the greatest joys in reading classic literature is the discovery of a “buried treasure”—an obscure, underappreciated work by an otherwise celebrated author. The Great Shadow is a perfect example. Of course, you have to be somewhat predisposed toward classic historical fiction to truly enjoy it. Fans of Holmes or Challenger won’t necessarily like it, but anyone who appreciates the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, or Sir Walter Scott will find The Great Shadow right up their alley.

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