“The Crime of the Brigadier” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from a series about a fictional French officer named Brigadier Gerard. At the time of the story he is serving in Spain during the Peninsular War. This particular story first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in December, 1899. An alternative title was “How the Brigadier Slew the Fox”. Doyle modeled his protagonist after the light cavalry hero Baron de Marbot. Marbot first made a name for himself on the peninsula and went on to further distinction in the Russian campaign. He was a brigadier general by the time of Waterloo and was wounded in the battle. Doyle’s version of him inspired the Harry Flashman character in the George McDonald Fraser novels. He is not the coward that Flashman is, but he does exhibit the vainglory. He may be a supreme egotist, but he is an excellent and brave warrior and quite the ladies’ man. He doesn’t mind telling you. Doyle uses him to satirize not only the French, but also the British. In this particular tale, he is poking fun at the upper class British officers.
Doyle hooks the reader immediately by identifying Gerard as the only officer the British army had “deep, steady, and unchangeable hatred”. This is because he committed a crime “which was unspeakable, unheard of, abominable; only to be alluded to with curses late in the evening”. I’ll bite, what did he do? The year is 1810 and the French have pushed Wellington back to Portugal. With Lisbon in sight, the French are rudely confronted with Wellington’s defensive line of Torres Vedras. The French commanding general Messena has a bright idea for a reconnaissance and who better to conduct it than the dashing Gerard? Gerard cannot dispute Messena opinion that he is the greatest horseman in the army. He gives him the best horse in the army so he can ride around the British lines and scout out the weak spots.
Gerard tells the story in flashback from retirement as a cabbage farmer. Things start off satisfactorily until the greatest horse is felled by a sentry’s bullet. Gerard hides in a stable, but manages to get an upgrade horse-wise when he steals the best horse in the British army. The scout continues until the new horse hears the call of a fox hunt and cannot be deterred. What happens next earns Gerard the undying enmity of the entire British officer corps.
“The Crime of the Brigadier” is the best story so far. I had no idea Doyle had written this series. Being a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is no surprise that he could successfully delve into a different subgenre. The story is very well written and thoroughly entertaining. It is satire at its wittiest. Doyle would have us believe that British officers even in a siege, cannot do without their fox hunts. The fox hounds have been brought over from England by special ship. Gerard lucks into a thrice weekly hunt. He may be pompous, but his foes are upper class twits. I prefer Gerard to Flashman. He may have a giant ego, but there is some reason for it. He is quite the braggart warrior, but not a buffoon.
The best thing about the story is you can’t wait to find out what terrible act Gerard has committed. When it becomes apparent (and it is unpredictable), it is a cracking good punch line. I definitely will read more of the series.
GRADE = A