Sun 6 May 2007
In a previous volume, The Green Flag, I have assembled a number of my stories which deal with warfare or with sport. In the present collection those have been brought together which are concerned with the grotesque and with the terrible — such tales as might well be read “round the fire” upon a winter’s night. This would be my ideal atmosphere for such stories, if an author might choose his time and place as an artist does the light and hanging of his picture. However, if they have the good fortune to give pleasure to any one, at any time or place, their author will be very satisfied.
— Arthur Conan Doyle, Windlesham, Crowborough.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE – Round the Fire Stories
Smith, Elder, 1908, hc. Also published abridged as: Tales for a Winter’s Night. Academy Chicago (U.S.), 1989; Academy Chicago (England), 1990. According to Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, only some stories are criminous. Film (based on “The Lost Special”): Universal, 1932 (scw: Ella O’Neill, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, George Morgan; dir: Henry McRae)
None of the Round The Fire Stories features Mr. Sherlock Holmes, although two mention anonymous letters to the press presenting solutions which some readers believe to have penned by the great detective himself (“The Man With the Watches” and “The Lost Special”). FOOTNOTE.
In “The Man With The Watches” the titular corpse is found dead an hour into the London-Manchester rail journey. Three other passengers have disappeared yet none were seen to leave or join the train at the one stop made before the grisly discovery. Where are the missing trio and why is the dead man in possession of no less than six gold timepieces?
The village of Bishop’s Crossing is the home of Doctor Aloysius Lana, whose olive skin led to his nickname of “The Black Doctor.” After receiving a letter from abroad, Dr Lana breaks off his engagement to Miss Morton, whose enraged brother Andrew declares the doctor deserves a good thrashing. Dr Lana is subsequently discovered dead and the evidence points to Andrew being the guilty party. But was he?
Ward Mortimer is appointed curator of the Belmore Street Museum. Its greatest treasure is “The Jew’s Breastplate,” a gold artifact decorated with a number of valuable gems. Soon there are two burglaries, both of which focus on the breastplate. How is the miscreant getting in and why doesn’t the culprit just pinch the breastplate and be done with it?
Louis Caratal and his companion, newly arrived in Liverpool from central America, must get to Paris without delay. Caratal charters a train to London but “The Lost Special” disappears between St Helens and Manchester, the only trace of its passage being the dead body of its driver, found at the foot of an embankment. The truth comes out some time later, and even then it’s as the result of a confession rather than an investigation.
John Maple’s Uncle Stephen has one leg shorter than the other, so is known as “The Club-Footed Grocer” due to his high-soled boot, which regularises the length of the limb. One day John receives an urgent summons to his uncle, involving extremely odd instructions on how to reach his isolated dwelling. The mystery is slight, although the story has a touch of the Buchan about it.
“The Sealed Room” opens with solicitor Frank Alder’s accidental (literally) meeting with Felix Stanniford, son of a disgraced banker who fled the country some years previously and has not reappeared, despite a letter two years before strongly indicating he will return. Given the title, almost all readers will immediately guess what the mystery might be and they’d be right.
Lord Southerton’s nephew and presumptive heir to the family fortune is Marshall King, a spendthrift who devotes his time to frivoling about London. Marshall’s cousin Everard King has purchased an estate after returning from South America, bringing various wild life including “The Brazilian Cat” back with him. On the verge of bankruptcy, Marshall accepts an invitation to visit Everard. This story is not a mystery as such and while the plotline is predictable, there are moments of genuine excitement.
It’s back to more traditional crime in “B. 24.” The narrator presents a plea for clemency, in which he admits to burglarising a country mansion, but adamantly denies killing its owner, Lord Mannering, and instead points the finger at Lady Mannering, who hates her husband and according to local gossip has reason to feel that way. B. 24 asks that her background be investigated before he is executed. Is he innocent or trying to save his neck at the expense of hers?
My verdict: An uneven collection, although an interesting hour or two will be spent reading it. Most readers will guess the solutions but one or two twists may be more difficult to rumble and it was a refreshing change from Holmes and company taking centre stage.
FOOTNOTE: I must thank various members of the Golden Age of Detection Yahoo group for their further discussion of this point.
In “The Man With The Watches” we see: “There was a letter in the Daily Gazette, over the signature of a well-known criminal investigator…”
… and then we have “The Lost Special,” in which we learn of a letter: “… which appeared in the Times, over the signature of an amateur reasoner of some celebrity at that date, attempted to deal with the matter in a critical and semi-scientific manner. An extract must suffice, although the curious can see the whole letter in the issue of the 3rd of July.
“‘It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning,’ he remarked, “that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth….”
And I think we’ll agree the second letter in particular has his grammatical fingerprints all over it, but it raises another question: why didn’t Conan Doyle write these two adventures as Holmes stories? Were these stories written during a period when he was thoroughly tired of his own creation?
[Note: This online version does not include all of the stories in the original edition. See below.]
Complete contents, as taken from CFIV:
# • B.24 [“The Story of the B24”] • ss The Strand Mar, 1899
# • The Beetle Hunter [“The Story of the Beetle Hunter”] • ss The Strand Jun, 1898
# • The Black Doctor [“The Story of the Black Doctor”] • ss The Strand Oct, 1898
# • The Brazilian Cat [“The Story of the Brazilian Cat”] • ss The Strand Dec, 1898
# • The Brown Hand [“The Story of the Brown Hand”] • ss The Strand May, 1899
# • The Club-Footed Grocer [“The Story of the Club-Footed Grocer”] • ss The Strand Nov, 1898
# • The Fiend of the Cooperage • ss The Manchester Weekly Times Oct 1, 1897
# • The Japanned Box [“The Story of the Japanned Box”] • ss The Strand Jan, 1899
# • Jelland’s Voyage • ss
# • The Jew’s Breastplate [“The Story of the Jew’s Breastplate”] • ss The Strand Feb, 1899
# • The Leather Funnel • ss McClure’s Nov 1902
# • The Lost Special [“The Story of the Lost Special”] • ss The Strand Aug, 1898
# • The Man with the Watches [“The Story of the Man with the Watches”] • ss The Strand Jul, 1898
# • Playing with Fire • ss The Strand Mar 1900
# • The Pot of Caviare • ss The Strand Mar 1908
# • The Sealed Room [“The Story of the Sealed Room”] • ss The Strand Sep, 1898
# • The Usher of Lea House School • ss The Strand Apr, 1899