Sunday was a good day. I finished King Solomon’s Mines, then powered through three more novels in and among the tasks of the day. It’s brought me more or less up to par.
The first of the three was one of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, Sharpe’s Regiment. It might be one of my favourites. While most Sharpe books have quite a lot of “obstructive bureaucracy” and “incompetent senior officers” motifs – Cornwell himself said that he found early on that there would have to be more enemies than just the French – they’re still essentially stories about how Sharpe wins a battle or achieves something similarly martial. Regiment, by contrast, is, for one thing, mostly set in England, and involves Sharpe trying to dig his regiment out from that most fatal of military ordnance, red tape. Reinforcements are not coming, and when he reaches home shores the paperwork is suspicious, to say the least. For once, the obstacle cannot be overcome either by hitting it with a sword or by hitting something else with a sword very impressively.
The Sharpe books have the virtue of easy accessibility. This is a virtue, because there are several of them and they don’t really rely on one another; they’re more like episodes of Sharpe’s career, though if you read several you will of course see his personal trajectory. What this means, though, is that if you want to read a lot of them, you’ll have to get used to reading pretty much the same descriptions over and over again. Phrases like “the tall dark-haired officer who had risen from the ranks” serve as a crude but effective way to bring everyone up to speed. We are also generally reminded of how the scar on his cheek makes him look mocking, except when he smiles. Eminently forgivable; simply ride the first few pages out with a tolerant eye.
Nobody who has read it will, I think, object to me describing Camus’s The Outsider (French: L’Etranger) as a really weird book. Meursalt, the main character, is either a psychopath or simply an honest man, or else a bit of both. His narration reads like a child describing his day – short statements of fact which don’t really have any importance, or are delivered in a way that seems to rob them of it. “But it was all really a bit pointless and I couldn’t be bothered,” says Meursalt at one point.
The novel is a brilliant, disconcerting exploration of the existentialism of Albert Camus. “Here we have the epitome of this trial. Everything is true and yet nothing is true,” the lawyer bursts out in response to one witness. Camus seems to be passing comment on life itself, much as when he remarks that “it wasn’t peculiarities they were looking for here, but criminality. There’s not much difference though.” Society condemns us, Camus thinks, for not playing by the rules – its rules – and those rules include, even mandate, dishonesty. The jury are not horrified by Meursalt’s crime; they are horrified that he calmly reflects and says, essentially, “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I actively regret it.” But here, Camus’s message is, he doesn’t differ from many people; where he differs is that he admits it. The brutal honesty upsets the balance of things.
If you’re going to read this, read The Myth of Sisyphus (French: Le Mythe de Sisyphe) either before or after you do. Even taken together they can’t come to much more than 200 pages (I confess I can’t currently find my Sisyphus to check).
Forget Robert Downey Jr. Forget Benebub Crimbledart. Even forget Basil Rathbone. Go straight to the source, and the marvellous imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Extraordinary Cases of Sherlock Holmes brings together eight of Holmes’s best stories, from the spine-chilling “Adventure of the Speckled Band” (my mother to this day cannot stand that story, ever since reading it in her English lessons as a little girl) and the macabre but mentally stimulating “Musgrave Ritual” (a raw and untried Holmes) to the frankly funny “Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and the too-late-solved “Adventure of the Dancing Men”.
“What one man can invent another can discover,” says Holmes in the last-named of these, and it might as well have been his motto. The analytical mind, the frankly astounding leaps of abductive reasoning (three cheers for philosophy tripos precision), the dedication and the relentlessness; these hallmarks of the archetypical novel detective are brilliantly on show. And every now and again, the reasoning machine is humanised, not just by anger at a crime, or an incompetent member of the official police, or by sublime appreciation of music, but by actions and emotions closer to home – untidiness, and an almost bashful love of validation.
The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.
There are other excellent Sherlock Holmes stories out there, including full-length novels (this is actually the first collection I’ve read on this project), but if you’re looking to start, or to refresh your memory, there are worse places to go than this one.
Author Bernard Cornwell
Best character Anne Camoynes. She plays the game better than anyone, and all for the sake of her son. I don’t think she ever appears again.
Author Albert Camus
Best character The inevitable anguish of living a brief life in an absurd world
The Extraordinary Cases of Sherlock Holmes
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Best character Hilton Cubitt (“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”). Thoroughly decent, rigidly honourable and devoted to his wife.