The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 317
Recommended Ages: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

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All hail, Holmes!

The Stories.

A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia has come to Holmes in great distress. Unless Holmes is able to recover a compromising portrait from one, Irene Adler, not only will the King’s marriage be jeopardized, but all of Europe will suffer from the repercussions. Will Mr. Holmes take the case?

The Red-Headed League. Mr. Jabez Wilson is in some distress. He was accepted into the League of Red-Headed men and appointed a job in the club – with a tidy remuneration – only to receive word this morning that the club has been dissolved without a trace. What is this league all about, anyway?

A Case of Identity. Miss Mary Sutherland is entirely confused. Against her domineering step-father’s will she has become engaged to marry a Mr. Hosmer Angel. But on the morning on which they were to be married, Mr. Angel disappeared and has not been seen since. Where can he have got to?

The Boscombe Valley Mystery. A man, Charles McCarthy, has been found lying in a pool of his own blood. The obvious suspect – indeed the man the police have arrested – is McCarthy’s own son, James, who was engaged in a savage argument just minutes before McCarthy was killed. But Miss Turner, who has known James since he was a boy, is convinced that he could never commit murder. So Holmes is called in to sift the clues, to weigh the facts, to name the murderer…

The Five Orange Pips. John Openshaw is scared. Scared out of his wits. And the horror of it is, he doesn’t know exactly what he scared of. All he knows is that it exacts death – mysterious death – of its victims. See, his uncle died shortly after receiving an envelope containing five orange pips. The experience was repeated with his father. And now, he has received five orange pips of his own…

The Man With the Twisted Lip. Several days ago, Neville St Clair disappeared. His wife is frantic to find him and is certain that she saw him in the upper story of a shady business. But when she entered there, fully expecting to see him and demand an explanation from him, he wasn’t there. Instead, an old, decrepit beggar greeted her. Has St Clair been murdered? Or is he still alive?

The Blue Carbuncle. ‘Tis Christmas – the season of happiness and goodwill. But it’s also the season of mystery and robbery. For a shabby hat and goose have thrust upon Mr. Holmes – complimentary of a squirmish in which the owner of both took to his heels – and a priceless blue carbuncle has been stole from the Hotel Cosmopolitan. Will Holmes be able to draw any connection between the two?

The Speckled Band. Two years ago, Julia Stoner stumbled out of her bedroom and collapsed upon the floor writhing in pain. The only words she managed to utter before dying were these – “the speckled band!” All of her doors and windows had been locked from the inside at the time that she was seized, and the only clue to her mysterious death was her previous mention her hearing whistles in the night. Imagine then, her twin sister, Helen’s, horror when, after being moved to Julia’s now vacant room so that repairs may be done in her own room, she hears whistles in the night. What does it mean, Mr. Holmes?

The Engineer’s Thumb. It is not often that Watson is able to bring an interesting case to Holmes’ attention. But in this instance, the case is not only interesting, it is unforgettable! It involves a mysterious mansion, a gang of very clever forgers, and an engineer with a missing thumb…

The Noble Bachelor. Holmes never bothers to read the society papers. But this case comes straight out of society gossip. It seems that Lord Robert St. Simon has been deserted – jilted – by his wife just hours after their wedding ceremony was completed. She has completely disappeared! Can Mr. Holmes track her down?

The Beryl Coronet. Mr. Alexander Holder of the banking firm, Holder & Stevenson, is distraught. He was entrusted by an illustrious client with the invaluable beryl coronet as security for a loan. But several of the gems have been stolen from the coronet while in Mr. Holder’s possession – and the only suspect is his own son!

The Copper Beeches. A young lady, Miss Violet Hunter, wants to consult Mr. Holmes on a very important matter. She wants to know if she should accept a position as governess at the Copper Beeches. Although Holmes is initially disdainful – considering such a problem to be below him – he changes his mind when he hears what is troubling her. It seems that amongst her employer’s requirements are that she would cut her beautiful hair quite short and occasionally wear a dress of electric blue. Holmes foresees danger in Miss Hunter’s future!

Discussion.

I love Holmes. I love his world. I love his art. I love his cold calculation, his indefatigable spirit, and his mysterious languid spells. I love his sometimes snobbish but ever companionable relationship with Watson. And, of course, I love 221b Baker Street.

It was so good getting back into the Holmes canon. I’ve watched so many adaptions of his character in the past few years that I’d somehow lost sight of the real Holmes. Because every adaption only presents a facet of the true Holmes – the full complexity of his character somehow eludes the screen.

This particular collection of short stories – one of five – is, I think, the happiest of them all. It occurs before Conan Doyle kills Holmes, and presumably while he still likes him. Holmes isn’t quite as light-hearted as he was in A Study in Scarlet, but neither is he so brooding as in the later stories (His Last Bow, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes). And the stories themselves are fine.

I don’t mean fine as in ‘okay’. I mean fine as one means ‘fine china’. These stories are finely crafted and populated with believable characters. One thing that I love about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon is that it proves that a mystery need not be based around a murder to be intensely fascinating. Of the twelve mysteries contained in The Adventures, only three deal directly with murder.

In fact, the whole book is remarkably clean. Really the only story of the lot which parents need be concerned with is the first, which concerns the indiscretions of a king. But even here, the word mistress is used only once – the relationship is referred to as an ‘entanglement’, not an affair. It is, considering the topic itself, clean.

Various forms of God’s name are used a total of eighteen times, most in serious situations which could be considered forms of prayer.

Conclusion. Excellent! Buy it – read it.

A Study in Scarlet

Title: A Study in Scarlet
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 131
Reading Level: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Story.          

Dr. John Watson, on leave from his post as doctor to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, is in need of comfortable rooms at a reasonable price. The only practical way to achieve this combination is to find a flat mate. So, when someone mentions Sherlock Holmes, a fellow interested in chemistry, as a man also in search of rooms, Dr. Watson doesn’t waste any time. He secures Holmes and their rooms, relieved that he can now settle down.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Holmes is an unusual fellow – he keeps odd hours, receives a plethora of uninvited guests, and is mysterious about his profession. This puzzles Dr. Watson until the day that he learns that Holmes’ profession is the mysterious. Then, he is plunged into a murder mystery that involves an empty house, a woman’s wedding ring, and the word ‘RACHE’ written on a wall… in blood…

Will Holmes be able to solve this fantastic mystery and catch the elusive murderer?

Discussion.

I read the complete Sherlock Holmes back in 2009. Since then, I’ve re-read most of the short stories, some more than others. But I hadn’t re-read any of the novels. It was time.

There is something so special about re-reading the early days of the Holmes/Watson association. It’s easy to grow accustomed to the trust and collaboration between them and forget that in the earliest days, Watson wasn’t quite sure what to think of Holmes (he’s never heard of a heliocentric universe. Really!) and Holmes did not include Watson in his adventures. They were outsiders to each other. And then, slowly, the bond began to grow.

Also of interest to me was the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in this first story. I have long been aware that his character changed over the course of the stories, but I hadn’t realized just how much. Oh, sure, he’s still the same old lover-of-the-puzzle-for-the-puzzle’s-sake Holmes, but he’s different. He’s more ambitious with his trade – he chafes at the fact that Lestrade and Gregson will reap the benefits of his deductions, whereas in later stories, he accepted and sometimes preferred the fact that the Yard detectives were credited. In the later stories he’s more moody, more inaccessible. In A Study he is boyish, susceptible to praise, and ready to laugh at a joke.

So the question is, which way do I prefer him? The answer – both. I like him both ways. I like Holmes as the moody genius as well as the good-natured blood hound. As one he’s more legendary, the other more human. Both are good. Both are Holmes.

Now for the actual story, or rather stories. The first time I read A Study in Scarlet, I was irritated that nearly a half of the novel was spent explaining the motive / personal history of the murderer. It felt anti-climactic, as though Doyle was just trying to create a certain number of words rather than an actual story. This time through, since I already knew how the story ended, I didn’t feel so impatient. I still don’t think that it was the best way to write a story (interrupting an English mystery to insert a bit of American western), but it doesn’t destroy the story.

Cautions.

Holmes expresses an opinion in one scene which explicitly references Darwinism. It is incidental and does not affect the story.

The second half of the story involves a Mormon settlement – it is properly (harshly) represented.

‘Damn’ is used once, ‘darn’ twice. Variations of God’s name are used a total of three times.

Conclusion. A Study in Scarlet is the introduction to one of the most fascinating characters of literature. Read it, then read The Adventures and The Return.

The Man Who Would Be King

Title: The Man Who Would Be King
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Pages: 48
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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A story of adventure, intrigue, companionship, and betrayal…

The Story.

It seems impossible. Yet here he is – Carnehan, the same man that stood before me two years ago contracting with his comrade, Dravot, that they two would become the kings of Kafiristan. The same man, but oh how different now! Then he was bright, happy, full of life and health – ready to take on the world! Now, he is a cowering, whining cripple, barely able to stand and shrinking from the notice of day. What happened during those three years? What happened to the Man who would be King?

Discussion.

Alright. So there are two main things that I want to discuss about The Man Who Would Be King. The first is the interpretation of the story – what it means and what we can learn from it. The other is an evaluation of the story – how it was written and how it should have been written. (Like I know better than Kipling, right? Right.)

An Interpretation. The Man Who Would Be King is, ostensibly, a classic adventure story. As the story begins, we learn that Carnehan and his cheeky friend, Dravot are planning to launch a two man invasion on a small Middle Eastern nation, with the naïve intention of becoming kings. Sounds like a riproaring fun scenario! But The Man Who Would Be King is not fun. I don’t mean that to say it was boring or annoying or anything negative – it simply was not a fun story. It was a sober story told in occasionally humorous tones.

I don’t know how Kipling meant The Man Who Would Be King to be interpreted. I don’t know if it was intended to be an up and up adventure story or a political agenda expressed in covert language. So instead of falling all over myself trying to tell you how he meant it, I’ll tell you how I took it.

The Man Who Would Be King was a story of pride. It was a story of the destruction of pride. And it was a story of how no one – no one! – is allowed to lift himself up and call himself god. Because that’s exactly what Carnehan and Dravot do. They don’t set out plotting to do it, I’ll give them that, but as soon as the opportunity arises, they capitalize on superstition and pretend to be gods, thus commanding the idolatrous and subservient worship of a people group and enthroning themselves as absolute sovereigns over a sphere. They maintain this masquerade for quite some time, but in the end, their fall is swift and horrible. The people they tricked into worshipping turn upon their fallen gods in rage. Justice is executed.

All of which I found to be a poignant reminder of how carefully we must guard our hearts against the sin of pride. We may not do anything so drastic as Carnehan and Dravot, but we are guilty of the same sin on a smaller scale, for we all seek to inflate our own importance for the purpose of gaining power, admiration, etc.

An Evaluation. I believe that The Man Who Would Be King could have been written much more effectively. It wanted to be an adventure story and contained most or all of the right elements – ambitious protagonists, an exotic frontier, and a kingdom at stake (all it was missing was the beautiful princess – think Prisoner of Zenda) – but it was hampered stylistically by two things.

First was the narrative within a narrative technique. Adventure stories are rarely as interesting in this format as they could have been in an outright narrative, primarily because the suspense is precluded. We already know that something terrible happened to Carnehan and that Dravot is dead. So, while we may wonder at what happened in those two years, we aren’t glued to the story, because we already know its outcome. Also, narratives-within-narratives (henceforth NWN) rarely let you forget that what you are reading is, in fact, a story. You aren’t allowed to get into the story – you may only listen to it. Carnehan’s story felt faraway to me – out of touch with reality and really unearthly. Perhaps Kipling meant it to be that way. I don’t know.

Second is its brevity. Because Kipling DID choose the NWN technique, the story had to be kept short. After all, Carnehan couldn’t talk for two days straight! But I thought that had the story been told forthrightly (as I suggested in the paragraph above) and had it been expanded, it could have been much more effective. I don’t believe that longer is better in general, but as readers, we need enough time to get involved with our characters. The Man Who Would Be King just didn’t give me that time. So, when it ended, I felt sorry for Dravot and Carnehan, but I was not connected enough to them to actually feel empathy for their situation.

Caution.

Carnehan and Dravot not only claim to be gods and encourage idolatrous worship, but they also encourage the re-opening of a Masonic club in Kafiristan in which they establish themselves. They initiate a large group of men into the club and use it to further their power.

There is some little discussion of women – Carnehan and Dravot swear that they will not “look at any woman black, white or brown” until they are established in their kingdom. After they are kings, Dravot declares that he wants a wife and tells Carnehan that he should get a wife, too, “a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter.” To be fair, Carnehan replies by paraphrasing Scripture to his friend. “The Bible says that Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women, ‘specially when they’ve got a new raw Kingdom to work over.” I’m not sure how he missed the parts about lying and taking the name of God in vain…

‘Damn’ is used five times, ‘hell’ once, and ‘niggers’ once. Variations of God’s name are used as exclamations a total of twelve times.

Conclusion. A very thoughtful piece from Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King explores the issue of human pride and the inevitable destruction that accompanies it.

Heart of the West

Title: Heart of the West
Author: O. Henry
Illustrator: Joseph Ciardiello
Pages: 246
Recommended Ages: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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At the last Maud Marks Library Sale, I picked up a beautiful hardcover. It was published by Reader’s Digest, which would excite me in any case, but this find was doubly exciting. Because it was the Reader’s Digest edition of Heart of the West written by one of my favorite authors, O. Henry. But before I start raving, let me mention the stories included in the volume.

There are far too many for me to provide a synopsis of each, but I can give a list of the stories included. They are Hearts and Crosses, The Ransom of Mack, Telemachus, The Handbook of Hymen, The Pimienta Pancakes, Seats of the Haughty, Hygelia at the Solito, An Afternoon Miracle, The Higher Abdication, Cupid A La Carte, The Caballero’s Way, The Sphinx Apple, The Missing Chord, A Call Loan, The Princess and the Puma, The Indian Summer of Dry Valley Johnson, Christmas by Injunction, A Chaparral Prince,and The Reformation of Calliope.

Discussion.

I realized once I started Heart of the West that I had not read anything by O. Henry since September of 2011; that is, not since I began this website. It had been far too long.

I fell in love with O. Henry’s short stories back in 2010. I enjoyed his story The Gift of the Magi, but it was The Ransom of Red Chief that clinched me. While the Auto Waited, A Retrieved Reformation, and The Tainted Tenner were just icing on the cake.

O. Henry crafted stories like no other writer I have ever read. He is humorous – he gets the biggest kicks out of his characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. He has an extensive vocabulary – the story is that as a young man he read the dictionary like some people read novels – and he writes twists like nobody’s business. O. Henry’s endings are on a level with Agatha Christie’s for ingenuity, elan, and all around devilishness, only they are usually of an outrageously humorous nature, whereas Christie contents herself with being merely shockingly clever.

All of the stories in Heart of the West are set in the west – mostly Texas. The stories concern half-built settlements, cattle ranchers, outlaws, and all things western. However, although the stories were set in the west, populated by the west, and concern nothing but the west, these stories have nothing to do with the western genre. They pointedly ignore the guns-aflarin’ style and instead fall under the probing-of-human-nature category. They are humorous, but masterful; light-hearted yet deeply sincere. Here are a few quotes which I thought demonstrated the eccentricity of O. Henry’s style.

We were in the main dining room, and there was a fine-dressed crowd there, all talking loud and enjoyable about the two St. Louis topics, the water supply and the colour line. They mix the two subjects so fast that strangers often think they are discussing water colours; and that has given the old town something of a rep as an art centre. [pg. 62]

Teedeheede. In another story, two friends are trying to court the same woman.

“I reckon you understand.” says Paisley, “that I’ve made up my mind to accrue that widow woman as part and parcel in and to my hereditaments forever, both domestic, sociable, legal, and otherwise, until death us do part.”

“Why, yes,” says I, “I read it between the lines, though you only spoke one. And I suppose you are aware,” says I, “that I have a movement on foot that leads up to the widow’s changing her name to Hicks and leaves you writing to the society column to inquire whether the best man wears a japonica or seamless socks at the wedding!”

They proceed to court her without any “under-handed work” – that is to say, they only court her when the other is present, so as to be fair and above-board. Cute, huh?

Cautions.

Thirteen of the nineteen stories concern romantic relationships. In one scene, a man asks another man not to kiss a woman “quite so loud”. In another story, a woman is unfaithful to her outlaw man and takes up with a Lieutenant.

The very first story features a troubled marriage – the wife acts as an able manager of the ranch while her husband does all of the manly work. He tires of this situation and seeks to change his position to a more masterly one, but instead behaves very childishly. She resists his unreasonable claims and he leaves the house, establishing another ranch several miles away where he “rules”. In the end, she sends him a request to return to her, he returns, and they are reconciled.

In Christmas by Injunction, a man decides to pretend that he is Santa Claus and surprise the village children. This plan backfires.

One little boy who is markedly “fresh” tells an adult to “shut up”.

Variations of God’s name are used nine times. ‘Damn’ is used six times (three spelled, three dashed), ‘hell’ three times (one spelled, two dashed), ‘dad-blamed’, ‘dang’, and ‘durn’ once each.

Conclusion. I would definitely recommend O. Henry’s short stories to serious readers. Heart of the West may not be the absolute best of Henry’s works, but it is a fair sampling.

The Pearl

Title: The Pearl
Author: John Steinbeck
Pages: 118
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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I’ve read Steinbeck’s The Red Pony which was an okay story and Of Mice and Men which is positively riddled with curse words. I flipped through The Grapes of Wrath and was discouraged by the profanity. (I mean, if I’m going to read a 500+ page book, it just as soon be good!) After this, I consigned Steinbeck to the just-as-soon-never-read-again pile. Until I found The Pearl at a Goodwill for $ .10. And, well, I have this thing for pearls.

The Story.

Kino awakens to the love of his family, the color of the dawn, the peace of his home. Juana his wife is awake beside him, Coyotito his child asleep in his box. Kino rises to the morning, absorbing the glory; his wife moves to the fire; his son wakes in the box. The morning is a perfect one, one sighing of satisfaction.

There is a slight stir in the corner; Coyotito is gurgling, laughing, reaching up towards… a scorpion! Kino stalks towards the scorpion; he is there to crush it, but it moves too quickly. It is upon the baby – it is stinging him! With a howl of rage, Kino crushes it, but the puncture shines red and swollen from the baby’s shoulder. The doctor must be called or the baby will die.

The doctor refuses to see the child – Kino is too poor to pay for his time and he would rather let the child die than go unpaid. None of Kino’s friends are rich; his only hope is to find a pearl. But a pearl is not something one stumbles across; he must be favored by the gods.

Juana helps Kino as he dives over the side of their canoe into the cold water, holding his breath, deliberately choosing which oysters he will put in his small basket. He sees a large one. He chooses it. He floats to the top to break into its shell. And there lays the pearl, the huge pearl – the pearl that may save Coyotito’s life.  The doctor will now examine the baby. The baby will get better and in a few days Kino will take the pearl to the city to be sold.

But the pearl dealers band together against Kino and refuse to pay him for the pearl’s full value. They say that the pearl is not worth much because it is too big, a curiosity only, not something that will be bought. But Kino knows that they are trying to cheat him, knows that his pearl is the King of Pearls. He refuses to be made into a fool.

Will Kino win the true value from the tight-fisted pearl dealers? Will little Coyotito be finally healed?

Discussion.

The Pearl is at heart a story about the depravity of man. While Kino is initially interested in the pearl because of what it can do for his family – pay for Coyotito’s healing and purchase a marriage license for he and Juana – he becomes increasingly absorbed with the pearl itself. Even after the pearl draws hostility against his family, Kino refuses to destroy it because of the fascination it holds over him.

“This pearl has become my soul,” said Kino. “If I give it up I shall lose my soul.” [pg. 87]

While at the beginning of the story Kino and Juana’s neighbors are supportive and concerned for Coyotito’s safety and welfare, their interest turns into greed and savagery. The end of the story reads like a dystopian novel; it’s such a bizarre conclusion to the quaint, peaceful beginning.

What I thought was interesting is how Juana blames the pearl saying, “There is a devil in this pearl. You should have sold the pearl and passed on the devil.” [pg. 84] This is a common theme in treasure stories; blaming the treasure for the evil that occurs when really the evil was always in the hearts of men; it only needed sufficient temptation for it to be shown.

As in The Black Pearl, religion in The Pearl is a synergism between pagan superstitions and Roman Catholicism. The villagers are uneducated and confused and thus mix elements from these opposing religions together, wishing for help from “God or the gods or both”. When Coyotito is endangered by the scorpion, “Juana repeated an ancient magic to guard against such evil, and on top of that she muttered a Hail Mary between her clinched teeth.” [pg. 6]

The villagers believe that they must manipulate the Deities, offering service in exchange for rewards and making sure when they want something to not want it too badly lest the Deities become jealous. On one hand they speak of ‘going with God’, and on the other of magical protections.

On one page it is said that Juana considers Kino to be half insane and half god.

Kino thinks on one page that “The killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat.” [pg. 80]

Because of the worth of the pearl, a man attacks Kino. Kino kills him. *SPOILER* Later, three men are hunting for Kino and his family. Kino kills all three of them.

A man lies to save a life.

Several references are made to Juana’s breasts, mostly in reference to her nursing her son.

After Kino discovers the pearl, one of the things he wishes to do with the money is to pay for a marriage license for he and Juana, with whom he has been living and regards as his wife.

The book says in one place that Juan heard “the love agony of cats”, whatever THAT is.

Conclusion. If you want to read Steinbeck, The Pearl is definitely the best (as in least defiling – there are no curse words!) of his works. If you want to read classic literature, this is one of the better stories. If you want to read only the most edifying fiction, then you might want to read The Pearl sometime next year. :)

The Mystery of Cloomber

Title: The Mystery of Cloomber
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 146
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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I could hardly believe my eyes when I found The Mystery of Cloomber at a recent library sale. It is written by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of my favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. How then had I never heard of this novel?

Hmmph.

The Story.

Due to my father’s eccentric attachment to studying the languages and philosophic volumes of the far east, the family fortune has never amounted to much and had plummeted to an alarmingly meager pittance when my uncle invited our family to live on his Scottish estates and function there as his stewards while he toured the south of Italy. This tour, though extravagant to our way of thinking, was necessary to my uncle’s state of health; his lungs, which had grown quite weak in his residency at Branksome, were in need of fresher, brighter air such as Branksome could not provide. My family was in no position (nor, indeed, were we of a mind) to decline his proposition, and, though mindful that the Wigtown coast is dull at best and bleak at worst, we accepted and were installed at Branksome within the week.

We Wests had only been in the vicinity for a short time when a strange set of circumstances began to unfold.  It began when Cloomber Hall, gloomy and forbidding, was let out to a military man – Major Heatherstone – who moved his entire family into its walls before erecting an outer palisade and shunning all acquaintance with the neighboring inhabitants. This Major was a very nervous man, and he refused to allow his children beyond the boundaries of their own estates. Was the man insane? Or was he guilt-driven…

Discussion.

So… that’s the first time I’ve ever done a story synopsis in first person (and the only reason I did it is because the book’s in first person). Thoughts?

I usually don’t enjoy prefaces to novels. The worst thing about them, is they usually give away the whole entire story. Also, the writer of the preface often attempts to press his own interpretation of the characters onto you. Not fun.

But this time, I’m glad I read the preface. I was jumping into The Mystery of Cloomber with the hopes that it would become my new favorite novel. After all, it was written by the same author that created the imperturbable, wonderfully rational Holmes. But the preface reminded me of something that I had forgotten. A. C. Doyle was a believer in spiritualism. Although the Holmes persona strictly forbade Doyle to include supernatural elements in those stories, Doyle was not the least bit hesitant about including them in his other novels.

All of that fancy italics was to tell you that the solution to The Mystery of Cloomber would not have satisfied Holmes, because it is mystical – supernatural – not explicable by natural causes. This is how it works.

*ONE BIG HUGE NECESSARY SPOILER TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE MIDDLE EASTERN PHILOSOPHY OF THE MYSTERY OF CLOOMBER* Major Heatherstone is indeed a man running from guilt – he has, in fact, committed the terrible crime of killing Ghoolab Shah, an arch adept of the first degree. (Basically, that means that he was extremely learned in the occult sciences and, through their power, had extended his life span by several hundred years.) To quote,

It was irrevocably ordained by laws which cannot be reversed that any one who should shed the blood of a brother who had attained a certain degree of sanctity should be a doomed man. Those laws are extant to this day and you have placed yourself in their power. King or emperor would be helpless before the forces which you have called into play. What hope, then, is there for you? [pg. 125]

Basically, because he has killed a high-up-there occultist, John Heatherstone will have to pay with his life. But that is not the full extent of the mysticism – instead of killing Heatherstone immediately, the three chelas who are responsible for executing Shah’s vengeance hold off. They wish for Heatherstone to understand the full horror of what he did. So, they let him live for a while. But they never allow him to forget his fate. Every day and every night, they cause an astral bell (part of their meditative occultic branch – it’s a bell sound where there is no bell) to be rung over his head, so that he is afforded no real rest, but must live in terror. Pretty nice guys, huh?

In the end, *I’M GOING TO RUIN THE PLOT* these three chelas hire a boat to sail from India to Scotland, and use their occultic powers to raise up a storm and wreck the ship where they wish to disembark. (Why couldn’t they just use their powers to fly there, anyway?) They then visit Cloomber Hall where, instead of using physical violence on Major Heatherstone, they basically hypnotize him and lead him out to his death in quicksand.

Here are a few of the stranger statements made in the book. The first occurs after the three chelas are wrecked in Scotland. The conversation occurs between John and Ram Singh, one of the chelas.

“You have now an opportunity,” he said, in a subdued, reverential voice, “of seeing a spectacle which few Europeans have had the privilege of beholding. Inside that cottage you will find two Yogis – men who are only one remove from the highest plane of adeptship. They are both wrapped in an ecstatic trance, otherwise I should not venture to obtrude your presence upon them. Their astral bodies have departed from them, to be present at the feast of lamps in the holy lamastery of Rudok in Thibet. Tread lightly, lest by stimulating their corporeal functions you recall them before their devotions are completed.

I peered through the open doorway. There was no furniture in the dreary interior, nor anything to cover the uneven floor save a litter of fresh straw in a corner.

Among this straw two men were crouching, the one small and wizened, the other large-boned and gaunt, with their legs crossed in Oriental fashion and their heads sunk upon their breasts. Neither of them looked up, or took the smallest notice of our presence. They were so still and silent that they might have been two bronze statues but for the slow and measured rhythm of their breathing. Their faces, however, had a peculiar, ashen grey color, very different from the healthy brown of my companion’s; and I observed, on stooping my head, that only the whites of their eyes were visible, the balls being turned upwards beneath the lids. In front of them upon a small mat lay an earthernware pitcher of water and half a loaf of bread, together with a sheet of paper inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Ram Singh glanced at these, and then, motioning to me to withdraw, followed me into the garden.

“I am not to disturb them until ten o’clock,” he said. “You have now seen in operation one of the grandest results of our occult philosophy, the dissociation of spirit from body. Not only are the spirits of these holy men standing at the present moment by the banks of the Ganges, but those spirits are clothed in a material covering so identical with their real bodies that none of the faithful will ever doubt that Lal Hoomi and Mowdar Khan are actually among them. This is accomplished by our power of resolving an object into its chemical atoms, of conveying these atoms with a speed which exceeds that of lightning to any given spot, and of there re-precipitating them and compelling them to retake their original form. Of old it was necessary to convey the whole body in this way, but we have since found that it was as easy and more convenient to transmit material enough merely to build up an outside shell or semblance of a body. This we have termed the astral body.”

“But if you can transmit your spirits so readily,” I observed, “why should they be accompanied by any body at all?”

“In communicating with brother initiates we are able to employ our spirits only; but when we wish to come in contact with ordinary mankind it is essential that we should appear in some form which they can see and comprehend.” [pgs. 98-99]

John (the main character) seems to accept Ram Singh’s statements at face value and feels no doubt towards this ability or any of their other powers.

What bothers me is this – the occultic activity is not incidental; it’s the theme of the story. And there is no escaping it; no room is left for alternate interpretations of the story. I was expecting more of a Turn of the Screw type ending – you decide if the governess is really seeing ghosts or if she is insane. You are allowed to exercise your own credulity in the situation. But in The Mystery of Cloomber there is no choice, no other way out. We are emphatically told on the last page that,

Science will tell you that there are no such powers as those claimed by the Eastern mystics. I, John Fothergill West, can confidently answer that science is wrong. [pg. 140]

Well, thanks, John Fothergill West. That really boosts my confidence.  The tone of the book is almost accusatory – if you don’t believe in astral bodies and ecstatic trances, you’re an unreasoning child. (Why did I think it was the other way around?) The Buddhist/occultic laws are the highest, the most worthy, and we must prove our intelligence by acceding to them.

But to make it even worse, Doyle dragged the Bible in it, claiming that the miracles which it records are in the same family as the occultic practices. There is an addendum to the story which is “written” by one of the characters from the story. The addendum is entitled “The Occult Philosophy”. It reinforces the idea that the occult practices are noble, civilized and more advanced than the rest of us. If nothing else had really bothered me in this book, this single sentence would have done me in.

When Paul of Tarsus says that man consists of a body, a soul and a spirit, he is not indulging in vain surmise, but is stating concisely the conclusions arrived at by the occult school to which there is every reason to think that he belonged. [pg. 143]

Warf.

The Mystery of Cloomber was, I thought, remarkably clean as far as incidentals go. The romance was practically nil – the narrator falls in love with and becomes engaged to a young lady, but there is no romantic interaction between them. I found this, the initial reference to the relationship, to be funny.

Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that, dear as is the subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual affection is of too personal a nature to be more than touched upon in this statement. Suffice it to say that, within a few weeks of our first meeting, Gabriel had given me that pledge which death itself will not be able to break.

I have alluded in this brief way to the tie which sprang up between the two families, because I have no wish that this narrative should degenerate into anything approaching to romance. [pgs. 27-28]

:D

Major Heatherstone forbade his children to venture beyond his palisade, but they disobey him, believing his measures to be harsh. This isn’t harped on in the story – it just happens. Major Heatherstone quickly discovers their disobedience, but admits that his measures are harsh. He tries to discourage John in his attachment to Gabriel, but only because he believes it will be disadvantageous to John. When John insists, he seems happy.

Different varieties of God’s name – ‘my God’, ‘good God’, ‘God knows’, God-forsaken’ ‘God help me’ ‘God’s sake’, Lord love ye’ are used a total of eleven times. ‘By Jove’ is also used once. A ship’s mate refers to three Oriental men as ‘niggers’ thrice, but he is portrayed as being shallow-minded. ‘Darn’ is used twice, and ‘d-d’ (spelled just like that) is used once.

Conclusion. I liked parts of The Mystery of Cloomber –it’s written in 19th century English and concerns mysterious manors, so that bit was fun – but I wouldn’t especially recommend it, due to its propagation of spiritualism/occultic forces.

Great Stories of Suspense & Adventure

Title: Great Stories of Suspense & Adventure
Author: Various
Pages: 182
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

—–

So. This is a great collection. Of stories. That are suspenseful. And adventurous…

The Stories.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Rudyard Kipling. Deep in the heart of the jungle is a bungalow. And in that bungalow, long ago, a great war was fought. That war was the war between good and evil, chaos and order, two serpents and a mongoose. It was the war between Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the evil cobras, Nag and Nagaina.

When Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first arrived at the bungalow, he had no premonition that this war was to be raged. All he knew was that he enjoyed the attention that he received from the owners of the bungalow and intended to live right royally off of their table. That is, until he heard that the evil cobras were plotting to murder the owners and occupy the bungalow themselves with their children.

What can Rikki, a young inexperienced mongoose, do to avert this tragedy? Can he really kill these huge cobras? He soon learns that he has no choice, for they’re coming after him, too…

The Monkey’s PawW. W. Jacobs. When Mr. White invited his old friend, Sergeant Major Morris, to his home for a visit, he never guessed what a horrible succession events would occur. It all began innocently enough as Morris told the family of his diverse travels. And it would never have started had not the Whites pressed Morris for a tale – the tale of the monkey’s paw that he carried with him in his pocket…

A spell had been placed on that paw long ago. The spell was that three different men could each have three wishes fulfilled from the paw just from holding it up in their right hand and wishing. Morris is the second man to have had it, and his three wishes are used up. That leaves three left.

The Whites don’t take it very seriously at first – after all, how could such an outrageous tale be true? But then they begin wondering… and then they begin wishing…

Leiningen Versus the AntsCarl Stephenson. Leiningen is the only person in Brazil who is not afraid of the ants, and he prides himself of this fact. He has been on his plantation for three years and all he has heard about is the ants, the ants, the ants. But Leiningen is determined that no pesky little insect is going to drive him off of his money-making land. Even if their vast horde does take up twenty square miles…

And now they’re coming, marching towards his plantation, razing down every plant and animal in their path. They arrive at Leiningen’s home determined to chew it down. But he is determined to keep them out.

Who will triumph in this struggle of man versus nature, Leiningen versus the ants?

The Lady, or the Tiger? Frank Stockton. It is the law of the land that any man accused of a crime be placed in an arena. At the end of the arena are two doors, and the door which the accused man chooses to open determines his guilt or innocent. If he chooses the door with a beautiful woman in it, he is innocent and promptly married to the woman. If he chooses the door with the tiger in it, he is guilty and is promptly eaten by the tiger. Of course, one can never tell which of the doors contains the tiger and which the woman. So it is left up to the fates to decide…

Our protagonist has transgressed the rules of the land and is doomed to the arena. His love knows which of the two doors contains the woman and which the tiger. But will she send him to the love of another woman? Or will she give him to the tiger so that he can never be inconstant to her? What would you do?

To Build a Fire  Jack London. It is cold, awfully cold. Seventy below zero is not a temperature to be played with. The man has no intention of playing with it, but he did promise his friends that he would be at their camp for supper. He sees his friends too little to miss out on such an opportunity. So he sets off down the trail with his faithful husky.

The man progresses well. He is a smart man, and he knows how to avoid the treacherous snow banks and the multitude of stupid mistakes that would kill him. For four hours he manages to keep out of trouble. And then it happens – he is wet halfway to his knees and unless his builds a fire immediately, he will die.

The man has the matches and twigs necessary to start the fire, but his feet aren’t the only part of him that are freezing. His hands are beginning to freeze, too. It’s so hard to light the matches…

Will the man and his dog survive?

The Most Dangerous GameRichard Connell. When Sanger Rainsford accidentally fell overboard near Ship-Trap Island, he knew that the island was inhabited. And when he met General Zaroff, the cultured man who lived there, he assumed that his return to civilization would be simple. After all, Zaroff is a rich man who lives in a castle and keeps servants – surely he has a connection with the outer world?

But as Rainsford sits at dinner with General Zaroff, he learns that Zaroff is a big game hunter who lives only for the dangers of the hunt. He is so accomplished at his game that he finds hunting tigers and water buffaloes boring. No, there is only one quarry that Zaroff now hunts for, a quarry that can play the game with him. That quarry is man. And every man who has ever been wrecked on this island has performed as Zaroff’s quarry. Now it is Rainsford’s turn.

Can Rainsford, equipped with only a hunting knife, survive this murderous hunt?

Discussion.

In Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the antagonist, Nag, says, “the great God Brahma put his mark upon all cobras when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahma as he slept.”

The entire premise of The Monkey’s Paw is superstitious. Sergeant Major Morris tells the Whites that the spell was placed on the monkey’s paw to prove that fate does rule people’s lives. I believe that God does rule over people’s lives, but no mention was made of God in this story, and it was obviously magical rather than miraculous in nature.

The only real violence that occurred in the book arrived in Leiningen Versus the Ants. It wasn’t a gory, gut-spilling kind of violence. It was the creepy-crawly kind. The antagonist of the story is this huge army of ants who are trying to destroy Leiningen’s plantation. The men defending the plantation live with the knowledge that they will be stripped to the bone the moment they surrender. This keeps them in a state of emotional terror. Leiningen himself finds his resolve shaken after he witnesses the following scene.

Down the slope of the distant hill there came towards him a strange creature, writhing rather than running, an animal-like blackened statue with shapeless head and four quivering feet that buckled under it almost constantly. When the creature reached the far bank of the ditch and collapsed opposite Leiningen, he recognized it as a stag, covered over and over with ants.

It had strayed near the zone of the army. As usual, they had attacked its eyes first. Blinded, it had reeled in the madness of hideous torment straight into the ranks of its persecutors, and now the beast swayed to and fro in its death agony.

With a shot from his rifle Leiningen put it out of its misery. Then he pulled out his watch. He knew he hadn’t a second to lose. But for life itself, he could not have denied his curiosity the satisfaction of knowing how long the ants would take – for personal reasons, so to speak. After six minutes the white polished bones alone remained. That’s how he himself could look – Leiningen spat once and put spurs to his horse. [pgs. 72-73]

Grotesque, isn’t it? Needless to say, my skin crawled the entire time I was reading this story. Frantic screams are also described as coming from several of the men who were unfortunately attacked by the paralyzing, overwhelming venom of the horde, but nothing was stronger than the bit about the stag.

In The Lady, or the Tiger?, the protagonist’s crime is that of loving the king’s daughter. He is called her lover, and it is stated that “this love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to discover its existence.” [pg. 99] That is all that is stated, but this premise does drive the rest of the story.

To Build a Fire is a bleak story of a man’s attempt to struggle with the harsh and implacable forces of nature. There was nothing really wrong with the story, but it had the lonely feeling of the Godless world that London believed in.

The Most Dangerous Game was, for me, the most fascinating story of the lot, probably because it had the deepest philosophical underpinnings. Both protagonist and antagonist are former soldiers. Both men love to hunt. But the protagonist is a man who, though a soldier, believes in the sanctity of life and believes that to hunt down a man for the thrill of it is murder, while the antagonists justifies his activities on the strength of evolutionary reasoning. The following dialogue, though long, is fascinating.

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”

The general laughed with entire good nature. He regarded Rainsford quizzically. “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—“

“Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,” finished Rainsford stiffly.

Laughter shook the general. “How extraordinarily droll you are!” he said. “One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naïve, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view. It’s like finding a snuffbox in a limousine. Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors. So many Americans appear to have had. I’ll wager you’ll forget your notions when you go hunting with me. You’ve a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr. Rainsford.”

“Thank you, I’m a hunter, not a murderer.”

“Dear me,” said the general, quite unruffled, “again that unpleasant word. But I think I can show you that your scruples are quite ill founded.”

“Yes?”

“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships, lascars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels – a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.”

“But they are men,” said Rainsford hotly.

“Precisely,” said the general. “That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous.” [pg. 155-157]

I was disappointed that Rainsford could not articulate Biblically why Zaroff’s activities were wrong, but I was pleased that he stuck to his own belief. Perhaps I should not have enjoyed this story as much as I did, but I must admit that it fascinated. Perhaps it was because there was lots of action and the main character was playing for high stakes. But I think that what I liked most about it was that as the reader, I had no mixed feelings towards the villain. He was the bad guy through and through, not just because he opposed the hero, but because he was truly evil. What he believes is dangerous, not just to the hero, but to all of civilization. What makes the story even more scary is that many people believe precisely what Zaroff does without taking it to its full implications.

‘God’ is used four times, ‘hell’ once.

Conclusion. Very interesting and exciting stories, but ones which could probably be found in larger collections of short stories.

Five Red Herrings

Title: Five Red Herrings
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Pages: 286
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

—–

Is there anything more fun than a mystery novel? (Mystery movies won’t be counted as answers to this purely rhetorical question.) Seriously, though, mysteries are good for logical and analytical thinking and moral convictions, not to mention whiling a few hours away in fun and excitment!

The Story.

When Campbell’s body is found lifeless in the burn by Minnoch River, the police have no reason to suspect that his death was aught but an accident. It would be very easy for a man painting so near the cliff (as he was) to take a few steps back to admire the view and accidentally tumble over the edge. So far, so simple. That is until Lord Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene.

Wimsey is something of a detective – purely amateur, rest assured – and while nosing around in the dead man’s satchel, he notices something peculiar. Or rather, he notices that something is peculiarly missing. He sets the officers to look for it, but they return empty-handed. Wimsey is sure that it is in the possession of the murderer. Yes. The missing item means that Campbell has been murdered.

As far as Lord Wimsey and Inspector Macpherson (the official detective assigned to the case) know, there are six people who might have wished Campbell dead. Here is how they stand.

Matthew Gowan whom Campbell has publicly insulted and who refused to speak with Campbell before he died, Henry Strachan who is known to object so strongly to Campbell’s character that he turned Campbell off of the golf course, Michael Waters who quarreled savagely with Campbell the previous night and threatened to break his neck, Hugh Farren who believed that Campbell was taking an illicit advantage of his wife’s loving nature and kind hospitality, John Ferguson who was Campbell’s neighbor and whose garden wall Campbell had destroyed, and Jock Graham who purposely fishes just under the wall of Campbell’s house to annoy him and who once ducked Campbell into the Fleet after being insulted by him.

There are tenable explanations for how each may have killed Campbell. But which is it? And how will Lord Wimsey ever unravel the complicated web of clues?

Discussion.

Five Red Herrings was very clever – ingenuous you might say. It has billions of clues, billions of theories to interpret the clues, and six suspects who all have plausible reasons and opportunities to have murdered the victim.

When I was little I would get all involved in mysteries, trying to guess who did it, adjusting my theories along with the detective’s to fit the facts. As of late, when reading mysteries, I haven’t even bothered trying to figure out who the criminal was, I just enjoy the intellectual maneuvers of the detective. However, for this book, I felt that I ought to pick a suspect. So I did – quite randomly. And the hilarious thing is that I randomly and for no reason in particular picked the right one. ;)

There is no doubt that Dorothy Sayers is the most scholarly murder mystery writer that I have ever read. That said, I must admit that I don’t really like my murder mysteries to be scholarly. Mind you, I DEMAND that they be intelligent and demand intelligence on the part of the reader, but I don’t enjoy them very much when they drone on for pages and pages about painting equipment and time-tables. Five Red Herrings was intricate – very intricate, and while I appreciated that, it sometimes seemed as though nothing was actually happening. Perhaps this was just a bit of realism; whatever it was, it wasn’t my favorite. I like my mysteries to be mostly cliché and stereotype with just a little variation.

There were some very funny moments. Here are a few of the funniest.

‘This,’ said Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘is the proudest moment of my life. At last I finally feel like Sherlock Holmes. A Chief Constable, a Police Inspector, a Police Sergeant and two constables have appealed to me to decide between their theories, and with my chest puffed like a pouter-pigeon, I can lean back in my chair and say, “Gentlemen, you are all wrong.”’ [pg. 243]

Wimsey and Inspector Macpherson have just decided that they have been chasing down another red herring when Wimsey declares,

‘I must run away now. I’ve got two artists straining at the leash. Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war. It’s curious how blank verse seems to come natural to me today. It just shows how blank my mind is, I suppose.’ [pg. 205]

Gotta love that analysis of blank verse… Here is another of Wimsey’s attempts at verse, this time as he and the Inspector are searching for a spanner in the grass.

“Wimsey found himself versifying after the manner of the old man sitting in a gate.

‘But I was scheming to devise
A wheeze to catch the spanner,
With magnets of uncommon size,
And sell it for a tanner,
Or train a pack of skilful hounds
To scent it like a rabbit,
And something, something, something – ounds
And something, something habit.’

He paused and straightened his spine.

‘Not very lively,’ he mused; better, I think, for a Heath Robinson picture.

 Or purchase half a ton flints
And hurl them in the dark
And something or the other ending in glints,
And a last line ending in see the spark.’ [pgs. 110-111]

This after another theory has been debunked.

‘Bunter,’ said Wimsey, ‘this case resembles the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel, in which everything happens just too late to prevent the story from coming to a premature happy ending.’ [pg. 138]

Wimsey has been spying on a suspect and manages to injure himself in the process. His man-servant’s reaction is positively Jeevesian.

‘Somebody’s just made a moonlight flitting,’ said Wimsey. ‘I’ve been round to tell the police. At least,’ he corrected himself, ‘not moonlight, because there is no moon; in fact, it’s beastly dark and I fell over some confounded steps, but the principle is the same and have you got any arnica?’

Bunter’s reply was memorable:

‘My lord, I have already taken upon me, in your lordship’s absence, to acquaint Sir Maxwell Jamieson with Mr. Gowan’s project of escape. I have every reason to anticipate that he will be detained at Dumfries or Carlisle. If your lordship will kindly remove your garments, I will apply suitable remedies to the contusions.’ [pgs. 131-132]

Just one more quote before I release you to my cautions…

It was a marvellous day in late August, and Wimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along. The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton-Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures. [pgs. 16-17]

Cautions.

My biggest actual problem with Five Red Herrings was the amount of cursing it included. As best as I can calculate, damn was used fifty-seven times, hell fourteen times, bastard once, and different variations of taking God’s name in vain thirty-seven times. Now, this book was almost 300 pages, but I still thought this was far too many times.

One of the suspects seems to think that Campbell was having a romantic relationship with his [the suspect’s] wife, however, the wife makes it clear that this was not the case.

A woman hopes to guilt a man into marrying her by providing a false alibi for him. (The alibi is that he could not have murdered Campbell, because he spent the night with her.) The suspect later repudiates the alibi and the woman in no uncertain terms.

Conclusion. While Five Red Herrings was clever, funny, and intricate, it wasn’t my favorite. I acknowledge that this may have been due only to my taste, and reading preferences.

Murder on the Orient Express

Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 212
Recommended Ages: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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In April of 2011, I read a collection of Miss Marple short stories. It was my first exposure to Agatha Christie’s writings. I was expecting modern junk writing. Instead, I was greeted by the sophistication of British literature. Since then, I have read eight of her novels – two of them I loved, and the others were just okay. Murder on the Orient Express was one of the ones that I loved.

The Story.

Hercule Poirot has just successfully wrapped up a case for his good friend, a General of the French Army, and is looking forward to a peaceful trip back home from Syria. He might even lounge through a few days of tourism in Stamboul. What he does not expect is to land in the midst of a fantastical murder case in which it seems that no one could possibly have committed the murder!

Here is how it stands – a man was murdered, stabbed to death, in Compartment 2. When Poirot examines the berth he finds a note which contains the words “—member little Daisy Armstrong.”

Poirot knows immediately what it means; it means that this murdered man, this man who called himself Ratchett was a murderer himself. He was the evil man Cassetti who murdered Daisy Armstrong, the little daughter of a famous American actress. There were many men who wanted Cassetti’s blood after that event, but none of them were able to find him. Until now, until here on the snowbound Orient Express. But who among the passengers could have possible committed this murder?

As alibis criss-cross and evidence shifts, will Poirot be able to ferret out the murderer of the murderer?

Discussion.

I have never read a more magnificent full length mystery novel. As a detective, I prefer Holmes over Poirot, but as a story, Murder on the Orient Express trumps any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

I entered into Murder on the Orient Express entirely unsure of what my opinion of it would be. You know how sometimes you’ll begin to read a book knowing you won’t like it? Or knowing that you will like it? Well, I hadn’t got a bloody clue what my thoughts would be on this book. I was entirely taken aback. As I mentioned earlier, I’d read seven Agatha Christie novels; I really liked one of them and thought that the others were nifty. But I was not prepared for the mastery of this novel.

The murder happens. It’s a key part of the story – obviously it’s the centerpiece. But it is not dwelt upon. There are no gory descriptions or hair-raising details. It simply happened. From then on out, Poirot is engaged in cross-examining the witness, sifting through the details, and weighing the evidence. And you get to join in on his mystifications.

I’ve never been so stumped by a mystery. I looked and looked for loopholes and could find none. It truly seemed that no one could have committed the crime. And then suddenly, a seed fell into my mind. I simmered over it for a few minutes, then it burst into full bloom. I had picked my theory about thirty pages before the announcement of the murderer. Did I pick correctly?

I had! In the most outrageous plot twist and original conclusion that I’ve ever experienced, Poirot pieced together the details in a stunning finale that left me gaping, gasping, and grasping for more. Oh, if only I can ever find another mystery to equal this!

Cautions.

During the questioning time, it comes out that one woman accidentally went into Ratchett’s room on the night that he was murdered. She was embarrassed by her mistake and outraged by the comment that he made. “You too old.” (Implying that she had entered purposely and for dubious reasons.)

At the end of the book, Poirot and his companions M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine sit down to formulate theories. Here is Dr. Constantine’s chain of thoughts.

“He is queer, this little man. A genius? Or a crank? Will he solve this mystery? Impossible – I can see no way out of it. It is all too confusing. . . . Everyone is lying, perhaps. . . . But even then, that does not help one. If they all are lying, it is just as confusing as if they were speaking the truth. Odd about those wounds. I cannot understand it. . . . It would be easier to understand if he had been shot – after all, the term ‘gunman’ must mean that they shoot with a gun. A curious country, America. I should like to go there. It is so progressive. When I get home I must get hold of Demetrius Zagone – he has been to America, he has all the modern ideas. . . . I wonder what Zia is doing at this moment. If my wife ever finds out-” [pg. 168-169]

I was unsure what this last thought meant until Poirot asks each man if they have come up with anything.

“I, too, have reflected with great earnestness,” said the doctor, unblushingly recalling his thoughts from certain pornographic details. “I have thought of many possible theories, but not one that really satisfies me.” [pg. 169]

Ick. And the strange thing is that this just pops up out of nowhere! Parents could easily just blot out the work ‘pornographic’ and the paragraph be made innocent, if a little senseless.

‘Damn’ is used three times, while ‘hell’ and ‘God’s sake’ are each used once. ‘Por Dio’ is also used a few times.

Conclusion. One of the best mysteries I have ever read. I do not give a blanket recommendation of Agatha Christie’s writings, but Murder on the Orient Express is worth reading at least one or twenty times. =) Purchase a copy here.