Tales of Terror and Mystery – Review

Arthur Conan Doyle. Tales of Terror and Mystery. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. E-book.

Having recently read the Sherlock Holmes Stories, why not a stab at other stories by Doyle that do not involve Mr. Holmes? Tales of Terror and Mystery is a collection of some of Doyle’s other stories. They fall into two types: science fiction and mystery. Considering Doyle’s skills, the best ones tend to be those involving some kind of mystery, though in his own day his Lost World was a popular science fiction novel.

“The Horror of the Heights” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap” fall into the science fiction world. In the first, an early aviator discovers monstrous life forms in the sky; in the second, someone discovers a legendary monster in an English cave. These are mostly curiosities today, but they are interesting for their early attempts at science fiction.

Most of the stories are mysteries. The reason that these mysteries were not adopted for Sherlock Holmes is that most of them were written from the criminals’ or potential victims’ point of view. In a few the perpetrators literally get away with murder.

The tale of “The Man with the Watches” is the closest to a Holmes story. It mentions an anonymous London expert who was consulted but unable to shed any light on the mystery as does “The Lost Special.” Both stories involve very clever crimes. Any Holmes or Arsène Lupin fan would enjoy these.

“The New Catacomb” has some echoes of Poe, and for that reason is probably the most predictable of the stories. It also was written from the perspective of a successful criminal. “The Brazilian Cat” is told from the point of view of a victim of an attempted murder. One interesting side note: Lost World is set in Brazil as well. At the time Doyle is writing, the Amazon Basin may have been the least explored and least known part of the inhabited world. After his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt would explore that region. It had the potential that “darkest Africa” had to an earlier generation of storytellers.

“The Japanned Box”, “The Black Doctor,” and “The Jew’s Breastplate” are other stories that are reminiscent of Holmes stories. The first, like some Holmes stories, concerns a mystery which, we discover, is based on a misunderstanding. No actual crime was committed. The other two describe criminal investigations which we like to think Holmes would have solved but which the investigators assigned to the cases do not.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” may be the most bizarre story in this collection. It concerns a clever criminal and a magician’s sense of misdirection. Both this story and “The Beetle Hunter” concern observers who are medical doctors like Watson. “The Beetle Hunter” is reminiscent of “The Red-Headed League” in that a newspaper advertisement seeks a man with an unusual qualification—an M.D. who also collects beetles. As with many of the other mysteries in this set, we see the tale from the perspective of the perpetrator and victim, not the investigators.

Probably the most distinctive tale, one that might have elements of both sci-fi and mystery, is “The Leather Funnel.” A museum piece from the 1600s, a large leather funnel, causes grief to a number of people. Such funnels might have been used in wine making, but this one has a brass rim with a coat of arms and scores or cuts a few inches above the end of the spout. The tale brings in French historical figures, including a famous criminal mentioned in “A Family Crime”: a collected account of a crime committed in eighteenth century Paris that inspired The Count of Monte Cristo and that this blogger translated into English a few years back.

Reading these stories, we can perhaps see why Doyle remains best known for Sherlock Holmes. Having said that, most of these are clever tales on their own, and the best show off Doyle’s trademark ingenuity, even if the criminals get away with the crimes. As one criminal says at the end of his tale about the wife of one of his victims: “I have sometimes thought that it would be a kindness to write to her and to assure her that there is no impediment to her marrying again.” (1588) How thoughtful!

[Reference is a Kindle location, not a page number.]

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