Sherlock Holmes

The Thirty-Nine Steps

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The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan; Dover Thrift Editions

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was first published in book format in 1915.  It has been the source material that has been adapted in numerous ways; the most famous being the Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.  Beyond adaptations of varying faithfulness, the story has also influenced all sorts of adventure, espionage, and thriller stories and characters.  The novel itself contains ten short chapters.  My Dover Thrift edition was a spare eighty-eight pages.

The story begins in May 1914 on the cusp of the First World War (accepted start date: July 28, 1914).  The work was not Buchan’s first work – he wrote a number of non-fiction and fiction works prior to this novel – but he alleged that it was his first “adventure/shocker” novel. It is the first of five novels starring the character Richard Hannay.  After the second novel, Greenmantle, Buchan enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant serving in the Intelligence Corps.

There are a number of similarities between the character Hannay and Buchan himself. Obviously, Buchan made Hannay to be a very robust character, but he still drew from his own personal experiences.  Hannay is Scottish and enjoys strenuous outdoor activities, hunting, and when he is in London experiences boredom.  In many ways, Hannay is the macho archetype of a “man’s man.”  Hannay spent time in Africa where he worked as a mining engineer.  He often uses his experiences throughout the novel to make sense of his predicaments and challenges. He thinks things through with a healthy balance of Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain.  Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance is 1887 and Allan Quatermain’s first appearance is 1885, so clearly Buchan could have had either or both in mind while writing.

We meet a relatively bored and underwhelmed Hannay located in London on a May evening.  The first thing we are told about the character is that he is disgusted with life. He is vexed by the weather, the conversation, and the entertainments. But luckily, that very night as Hannay is entering the rooms of his flat, a bearded blue-eyed stranger seeks him out for assistance.  The man is granted entry into Hannay’s rooms where he begins to tell Hannay a seemingly far-fetched and outlandish story of political intrigue and scheming. Principally, Constantine Karolides is in danger.

The thing about the stranger’s (Scudder) story is that it sounds to the reader just as it may have sounded to Hannay. Names, places, hints and clues all swirl around in a way that makes it seem like there is a dark and abiding danger.  There is enough fact to make the story seem true, but not enough detail to have the story really knowable.  A lot of espionage stories contain a super-complex weaving of threads that dance around the shadows.  This story is told in a frantic way to a very bored Scotsman. Hannay (and us readers) can hear the story and either place our bets on Scudder’s story being too far-fetched because he is off his rocker, or he is telling the truth and if there are gaps in the story they will make sense as we go along.

Hannay is motivated to accept Scudder’s story by the fact that the latter winds up murdered in Hannay’s flat.

The novel progresses rapidly. I think most readers expect that the espionage-story told by Scudder and relevant intrigue will be developed. Instead, the majority of this novel involves the fugitive adventures of Hannay as he avoids the London police and the conspirators of Scudder’s tale. The adventures take Hannay far from London and into the countryside. Time and again Hannay avoids detective and capture by using any number of skills that fugitives have recourse to.  Ultimately, Hannay ends up seeming like Batman or John Carter (of Burroughs’ works).  He is tireless, he is strong, he is determined.  And I think this hero character agitates readers who expect their characters to be horribly flawed and bumbling.

I like heroes who are heroic. I like that they defy odds and survive. Many readers may complain that this is “unrealistic,” and that they don’t like pure adventure stories. Well, I can see such a point, but in this particular novel, I think Hannay is a charmer. He sees his “mission” through to the end.  Now, the end of this novel is rather weak and sudden. It does not feel all that satisfying if readers were looking forward to saving the British Empire from the threat of the Black Stone. However, if readers were cheering a bored Scotsman who loves adventure – well, its a good yarn and well worth reading.

This is less an espionage novel than an adventure novel, but readers who enjoy the tradition of Allan Quatermain and John Carter should find this entertaining. And I do intend to read the next book in the Hannay series.

3 stars

*** Roughly a month after posting this review, The Guardian posted a podcast episode about this book. Apparently I read this novel nearly on its 100th year anniversary. The Guardian Books Podcast of Aug. 14, 2015. ***

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Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Arsène LupinArsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar (aka: Exploits of Arsène Lupin) is the first collection of stories about the character Lupin.  It was published in 1907, but the contents were all previously published.  The author, Maurice, Leblanc (1864 – 1941) was born in Rouen.  He dropped out of law school and is generally known only as a writer – famous for the Lupin catalog.  Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar collects nine stories that present a continuous, albeit hyphenated, timeline in the early exploits of the so-called gentleman thief, Lupin.

I gave this collection four stars in total, but I really did enjoy reading these stories. There is no great literary depth to these stories, however they are fun and have just enough suspense included to make the reader turn the pages with interest. I suppose anyone who enjoys Nero Wolf, Poirot, and Holmes will also enjoy this collection.  It is easy reading and entertaining writing.

After having read this collection, I would read further in the Arsène Lupin canon. I like these stories and even if they are sometimes simplistic, I think Lupin is a character that major readers should recognize.  I think Lupin is most famous for his connection to Sherlock Holmes; particularly in this collection wherein they cross paths for the first time.  The whole scene is written perfectly and the reader should be able to imagine it vividly.  It also begs to be put on stage/screen.

I rated the nine stories included in this collection separately and then averaged them for rating the whole. The dates provided are for their first publishing in magazines, etc. :

  • The Arrest of Arsène Lupin – July 1905 – 4 stars
  • Arsène Lupin in Prison – December 1905 – 4 stars
  • The Escape of Arsène Lupin – January 1906 – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Traveler – February 1906 – 5 stars
  • The Queen’s Necklace – April 1906 – 4 stars
  • Seven of Hearts – May 1907 – 3 stars
  • The Safe of Madame Imbert – May 1906 – 3 stars
  • The Black Pearl – July 1906 – 3 stars
  • Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late – June 1906 – 4 stars

Readers really must start with the first story in the collection: The Arrest of Arsène Lupin.  This story connects, beautifully, with the last in the collection and so there is a definite reading order to be followed. I liked the first story quite a bit, because Leblanc toys with the reader enough to make the story fun and witty.  I feel that it is also a curious thing to start off a catalog of stories about a thief with a story about his arrest!

My favorite story in the collection is The Mysterious Traveler because it is one in which Leblanc displays his skill at position his characters in different roles and swapping the points-of-view.  This is one of the noteworthy things about Leblanc’s style in this collection:  the narrator is rarely the same and Leblanc seems to enjoy such little tricks in storytelling.  It is part of what makes these stories so much fun.

Overall, as I have mentioned, these stories are quite easy reading and entertaining.  Still I can count at least three times in which the reader is given a deeper glimpse into Lupin’s heart and history.  Lupin, though adventurous and clever, also possesses a measure of sorrow, of loss, and of romanticism. Maybe this is because Leblanc is French and was influenced by Flaubert.  Whatever the cause, there are moments of gasp-worthy romanticism and melancholy. But Leblanc doesn’t wallow in these fleeting moments – the insensitive reader will probably miss them entirely. Lupin hides his melancholy and toska. [toska – a Russian word meaning………… ?]

Recommended for a quick, fun read. Also for readers interested in “gentlemen burglars” and Sherlock Holmes.

4 stars

The Moor

MoorThe Moor is the fourth book published it the Mary Russell series written by Laurie R. King.  The Moor was published in 1998.  I read the first three novels in the series in 2005, but when I read this novel I hardly remembered much from the previous novels except that I really enjoyed them.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes investigate strange goings-on on Dartmoor. Reprising the setting and some of the plotlines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Russell come to the aid of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

This novel will probably be either loved or hated.  I tended to like the book quite a bit. The main thing about this book is that its plot and the storyline are really not very good. Holmes and Russell are in Dartmoor and if you know anything about moors it’s that they are not very nice. (Think about Wuthering Heights.) Moors are cold, desolate, scary, threatening, challenging, and vicious. I have never been to a “moor” but every time I read about them, I see the same characteristics. I picture terrain that is choppy, difficult, and jagged. I picture weather that is foggy, windy, and cold. It seems anyone that hangs out on moors gets lost, injured, or goes a bit off their rocker. That The Moor is set in such a place takes some stamina from the reader to get through because you know most of the book will be dealing with the challenges the setting places on the characters.  In fact, straightaway we are familiarized with this as Russell travels at night by train to the nearest train station in Coryton and then has to carry a rucksack two miles on uneven ground on a moonless night to meet Holmes who is at Lew House.

For the next 270 pages, most of what happens is inessential to a fast-paced, tension-ridden mystery. Luckily, I do not think The Moor is such a book.  Russell and Holmes truck about the moor looking for information – they don’t find any. This will probably annoy the reader as we are given chapters and chapters of storyline in which we do nothing but familiarize ourselves with the locals, learn some anecdotes, but the characters really do not seem to gain ground on their investigation.  After every foray onto the moor, Russell returns to the Reverend Baring-Gould’s home for warming baths and teas. She’s also usually muddy and highly bruised. In fact, for the majority of the book, it can seem like Russell drinks ridiculously copious amounts of hot tea and takes an inordinate number of baths.

On one of these forays, Holmes and Russell are out on the moor together, and Russell comments on Holmes’ uncanny skill in negotiating the terrain in her witty manner:

“He looked as if he were returning from a gentle day’s shooting; I seemed to have spent the day wrestling a herd of escaped pigs through a bog.”

However, I did not mind this seemingly pointless clambering around the moor. And I was not irritated by the teas and baths. Russell is such a charming and confident character that I love just “spending the day” with her. There is a lot of good writing skill when the author is able to make you enjoy just spending time with the character without the pressure of a storyline or plot. Very, very few authors/books can do this. But something about Russell is just pleasant to be around. One of the things I like about Russell is how she is not the some wilting flower woman overwrought with emotion or squeemishness. Russell thinks nothing of trekking around the countryside alone, handling rifles, falling off of horses, or hanging out in the local pub.  This is not to say that she is some sort of brash ruffian. Somehow, Russell is able to pull off being both educated and intellectual while being adventurous and durable. It’s fun to read a female character like this.  Holmes is a supporting character in the series, but he adds to the goodness of the novel. He does not coddle Russell – though he shows concern for her. I guess, in some way, the relationship and interaction between the two characters is really interesting and fun. I do not seem to mind what Russell and Holmes are involved with as long as I get to spend time with them.

The Reverend Baring-Gould starts off as an enigmatic character, but halfway through the novel he just turns into a sort of focal point:  Russell and Holmes crash at his mansion and consult him when they want to know some folklore or geographic fact. Baring-Gould is a ninety year old churchman who has summoned Holmes because of the recent appearances of a “haunted” carriage and dog on the moor.  One of the things the reader learns from Baring-Gould is about these tors that populate the moor.  A tor is a large, free-standing residual mass (rock outcrop) that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest. In my mind I pictured Stonehenge sometimes.

On these Russell comments:  “I personally decided were the result of near terminal boredom on the part of the natives, who would have found heaving large rocks into upright lines an exciting alternative to watching the fog blow about….”

In any case, the author makes the moor easily imaginable for the reader and though a moor is a desolate and dreary place, the book is still engaging.  Unfortunately, the plot is not very captivating and the author loses her hold on several threads throughout.  One of these is Miss Baskerville, whom Russell interviews and then basically dismisses. The villain, Ketteridge, is easily identified the first moment we meet him, the ending is absurdly simple in its brevity.  The plot just is not very well managed. However, it’s all made up for with giving the reader time to roam around with Russell and, yes, take baths and drink tea. (By the middle of the book, I was ready to just go and make tea for the heck of it.)  Baring-Gould has an indefatigeable maid/cook named Miss Elliot who seems to think she can fix all the problems in the world by providing consumables to Russell, Holmes, and Baring-Gould himself.

In the end of the book in chapter twenty four, Baring-Gould is having one of his rambling sessions of conversation and I found this section rather interesting:

“I am sure you have heard of this crystal wireless set which seems certain to achieve popularity; I imagine that the resultant instant communication will complete what modern education and quick travel have begun, and we will soon see the death of regionalism and individuality.  Haven’t you found this, Holmes?  The world is becoming filled with sameness, with men and women as like as marbles. Not a true eccentric in sight.”

I suppose instead of calling this novel a mystery, one should consider it a meandering description of the isolated folk who dwell on or near the mostly inhospitable moor. I recommend reading this novel in the winter. When what you are reading combined with the outside weather makes you chilled, you can draw a bath and brew some tea.

4 stars