Friday, May 13, 2016

The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tales of boxers, buccaneers, and British brigades
I always enjoy diving into one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes collections of short stories, because you never know what you’re going to draw from one of his fiction grab bags. The title of this 1900 collection, The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport, held little appeal for me, but once I got into it I was glad to discover that the parameters of “war and sport” are decidedly broad. This volume does contain stories of battlefield combat, and “Sport” is covered by boxing and hunting, but it also includes tales of pirates, diplomats, reporters, stock traders, and even a pair of horror stories. Though the diversity is appreciated, overall the quality of the entries is not remarkable. With the exception of a few standouts, The Green Flag is one of Conan Doyle’s weaker story collections.

The book opens with its worst piece, the title selection. It’s a drab narration of war in North Africa between British and Arabs. There’s a subplot about Irish soldiers rebelling against their English commanders, but it’s basically about gun calibres and troop maneuvers. This collection contains three other stories dealing with British colonialism in Egypt and the Sudan—“The Three Correspondents,” “The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce,” and “A Foreign Office Romance,” all of which are among its worst entries. They tend to have rather simplistic plots with a predictable twist, dressed up with the names of exotic locales and the sights and sounds of the desert. Each makes attempts at clever humor which mostly fall flat.

Conan Doyle finds better success with his seafaring stories. “Captain Sharkey” is a triptych of tales featuring the adventures of the most nefarious pirate in the Caribbean. The title character is a ruthless and violent villain, but, like an Arsène Lupin of the high seas, one can’t help but admire his cleverness and derring-do. These stories are well-crafted with artful plots and well-decked with the trappings of pirate lore. Conan Doyle’s pirate writing ranks right up among the best with the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Another strong entry is “The Striped Chest.” A British ship comes across a vessel adrift. When the captain boards the craft to investigate, he discovers signs of a murder that seems linked to a mysterious antique chest. It’s a nautical mystery that touches on horror. The other aforementioned horror selection is “The New Catacomb,” an Edgar Allen Poe-esque story that also appears in the collection Tales of Terror and Mystery.

Of the sporting stories, “The King of the Foxes” is a mediocre effort about fox hunting. Conan Doyle describes the hunt itself with obvious love for the sport, but he approaches the subject from an odd angle and caps the story off with a predictable ending. “The Croxley Master” is about a medical student who, in order to pay his tuition, agrees to fight the local champion in a boxing match. It’s a good underdog story, and Conan Doyle’s writes about boxing almost as well as Jack London.

Though I’ve mostly discussed the bright spots here, the bads outweigh the goods in this collection. However, a mediocre book by master storyteller Conan Doyle is still better than the best books of most short story authors. This one’s worth a download just to read “Captain Sharkey” and “The Striped Chest.”

Stories in this collection
The Green Flag 
Captain Sharkey 
The Croxley Master 
The Lord of Chateau Noir 
The Striped Chest 
A Shadow Before 
The King of the Foxes 
The Three Correspondents 
The New Catacomb 
The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce 
A Foreign Office Romance

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