Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Sign of the Four" By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

You read the second Holmes novel as an eBook, just like the first one. This one took you over a year to read. It's not that the book is particularly long, it's that you only read it when you were stuck in a line or caught waiting somewhere without whatever actual book you were reading at the time. God bless public domain free book apps on smartphones. There is probably a patron saint for those, right?

"The Sign of the Four" (also titled just "The Sign of Four") has a slightly different feel from "A study in Scarlet." Conan Doyle has no more need for introductions. He settles easily into developing his famous characters and their relationship with one another. The book opens, to your surprise, on Sherlock Holmes shooting up cocaine. It's fairly common knowledge that the most famous fictional detective in the world had a drug habit, but it was still odd to read about his track marks on his forearm. Watson says Holmes injects himself three times a day for months. But this drug habit isn't truly Holmes' addiction. Cocaine proves to be a poor substitute for the rush he truly craves, the rush he gets when he is on a case. Holmes prides himself on being an intellectual being, a man of pure logic and reasoning, but he's not. He needs to feel the visceral thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of solving difficult puzzles, the emotional high of living the life he is meant to live. He is addicted to adrenaline rushes.

And Dr. John Watson serves as Holmes' great enabler. Watson helps Holmes in his investigations, to get his fix. Holmes introduces Watson to a life that has taken him out of his post traumatic stress induced depression. In "The Sign of the Four" the two partners investigate a complicated series of mysteries, just the kind to satiate Sherlock's need and keep Watson engaged. Most importantly for the mythology of the Holmes/Watson story line, Mary Morstan enters the picture. By the end of the book, she and Dr. Watson are engaged.

Unlike the first book, the action of "The Sign of the Four" stays with the two detectives, never leaving Watson's First Person accounting to tell the other side of the story. By the climax of the novel, the two are involved in a heart-pounding boat chase on the river Thames. People die. A pygmy African native tries to kill Holmes with a poisoned dart from his blow gun. The true criminal, Johnathan Small, jewel thief and murderer, is eventually caught and spills his guts. His story involves the East India Company, betrayal, revenge, and a rebellion in colonial India.

Holmes is revealed as a retired bare-knuckle boxer (and a damn good one, too). He is a man of his era, smoking cigars, drinking from a flask, carrying a pistol. Holmes becomes much more of a real person in "The Sign of the Four" than in the first book. His energy is boundless in his quest to solve the mysteries he finds.

As soon as the crime is solved, Holmes visibly deflates. His manic energy evaporates with the end of the adventure. Dr. Watson reflects that he got a wife out of the adventure and the police got their murderer. He wonders out loud what there is left for Holmes. "For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine bottle."

This flaw in his character makes Sherlock Holmes seem more real, more convincing of a character. It is a good reminder both that perfection is not required to make someone worthy of admiration and also that our flaws, our individual struggles, are what make each of us who we are.

On to the next book!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" by Max Hastings (2013)

It's been one hundred years since the First World War began. Max Hastings has already proven to be a master of the history of the Second World War so you thought now was a great time to tackle his first effort to explore the history of the Great War. Unlike many scholars and historians, Hastings has never shied away from sharing his naked opinions in his books. In this one he puts one right on the cover. What ever else he says about the war, it was one thing above all else: a catastrophe.

On June 28th 1914, the crown prince of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in the Serbian capital of Sarajevo. Princip was a member of a Serbian nationalist extremist group called The Black Hand which believed Austria had its imperialist sights set on tiny Serbia. Austria was part of a larger Austro-Hungarian empire which did not include the tiny Balkan state within its boundaries. No one in the halls of Europe's crowded royal families at the time even liked the assassinated prince Franz Ferdinand, mostly because he advocated for greater autonomy for the ethnic minorities within the empire and annoyingly urged for a softer hand in deling with Serbs. Ironically, Franz was likely the person who would have tried the hardest to prevent the war that was ignited in his memory. Nevertheless, his death seemed like a perfect excuse for the continent's newest empire to gobble up more territory... that's what empire do.

The German Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted the Balkan region to stay out of the hands of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and he knew any acts of aggression in the Balkans would likely be met with Russian resistance. Germany therefore gave Austria-Hungary a guarantee that any actions they took to avenge their slain crown prince would also be backed up by the might of the entire German military. Historians refer to this guarantee as the infamous "blank check." Almost a month after Franz Ferdinand's death, Austria issued a list of demands from Serbia in retribution for the assassination, a list to which they knew the Serbs would never concede. Serbia refused and on July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The dominoes, which had been set in place over the course of a century or more, began to fall all over Europe.

Russia came to the defense of Serbia, both to prevent the Balkans from falling into the hands of Austrian (and therefore German) influence as well as out of a sense of ethnic duty to their Slavic brethren. Germany in turn declared war on Russia, as they had promised. France, who had a treaty with Russia to defend it against any enemies, was now obliged to mobilize her armies as well. Germany had long based its plans for any new European war on the idea of focusing on rapidly defeating France in the west. Afterwards, Germany planned to turn eastwards, towards the inevitable long slog against Russia. This German "Shlieffen Plan," named after its innovator, called for the bulk of Germany's armies to smash through neutral Belgium and into northern France, bypassing the extensive network of defenses the French had been building for decades along their German border and thereby neatly opening the road to Paris from the north. England saw Germany violate Belgium's century-old neutrality and mobilized her armies as well to put down the Kaiser's invading force. And that is how you get a World War.

Hastings spends the bulk of the rest of "Catastrophe 1914" mapping out the first five months of the war. He is able take these massive and extremely complicated movements of some of the largest armies the world has ever seen and boil them down into wonderfully concise and brief passages. He chronicles these Olympian efforts and epic mistakes encompassing millions of people, these sweeping armies covering nations like none had ever done before. He makes it all intelligible and he breaks it down into easily recognizable pieces when no one else at the time could even remotely realize what was happening. The panicked retreat by the French and British in the face of the German invasion, the humiliating defeat of the Russians in the east, the shame of the Austrians routed by a far inferior Serbian adversary. Hastings takes the mantle from Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" and moves it forward the 50 years the subject deserves. He does a masterful job and the book was brilliant in educating you on how the world came to the point where the madness of static trench warfare and the sacrifice of millions of men could become the status quo for four years. But chronicling every detail for this review would be ridiculous. The material is far too rich.

What you do think deserves to have some space on this blog is the overall setting and the causes for the war. Obviously the setting was Europe a century ago, but in truth, it was almost a different world. The dawn of the 20th century was truly the end of an Age. It saw a Europe (especially eastern) still mired in the Old World thinking that regional racial dominance was desirable, or even possible. Almost every major nation state involved in the war still had hereditary monarchies and they still clung to ancient and rigid class structures. A growing international workers movement was beginning to chip away at the bourgeois certainty of continued oppressive labor relations in a rapidly industrializing West. Suffragettes had torched over 100 buildings in England in the first half of 1914 in their quest for the right to vote. The sustainability of the inherited societies of the continent was crumbling, even though those in power were mostly unaware. In half a decade everything that had previously defined European society would change. Few of the royal ruling families and even fewer of the class structures that shaped the cultures across the continent would still be in place after the war.

Technologically, so much had changed in the lives of the men who would run the wars that it is almost hard to conceive of today. To quote the inimitable Winston Churchill from 1930, "Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent or vital has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened." Communications was almost instantaneous across the oceans and wireless radios were in their infancy. In the decade since the Wright brothers had conquered human flight airplanes had become commonplace, if not yet widespread. The cavalry of several nations weren't yet sure if they should still carry lances alongside their rifles (so some of them did!). Elaborate webs of railways allowed previously unimaginable numbers of troops to be moved previously unimaginably long distances in previously unimaginably short amounts of time. Massive steel battleships could now fire shells over the horizon, field artillery could now level whole countrysides in hours, and small portable machine guns could pour thousands of rounds per minute into killing lanes shaped by industrially mass-produced barbed wire.

Tragically for millions of young men, the violence of warfare, it's brutality and totality of destruction had outpaced the petty and short-sighted foreign affairs of Europe's leaders. War was seen as a legitimate and almost inconsequential means of advancing national (or even racial) interests rather than the "passport to Hades" that it had become. The battlefields of The Great War became factories of bloodshed the likes of which the world had never seen. The armies of the belligerents were like tectonic plates pressing against each other with so much force that, though very little seemed to change behind the smoking and sinuous lines where they collided, they eventually released so much pent up energy that in their tremors, whole governments fell and empires would dissolve overnight. The leaders who instigated this war had no idea of the power the were wielding. They didn't respect it because they couldn't imagine what it had become.

Unfortunately, rather than opening the eyes of the belligerents to the insanity of it all, the colossal loss of life instead ensured that the war would continue. Every government felt that the rivers of blood spilled in the war's first months (when the outcome still looked as if it could be swiftly decided) called out and demanded even more sacrifices, more deaths in the name of antiquated and poorly defined goals. The conflict gained a terrible momentum that neither side could prevent. Germany and Austria-Hungary could not allow the sacrifice of so many of their youngest to have been in vain, however dubious their initial motivations had been. Russia, France, and England could not stomach the idea of acquiescing to German hegemony of the continent. Hastings spends an entire chapter chronicling some of the German atrocities against civilians attesting to the righteousness of the Allied cause.

Each side had to wait until their own populations took the decision out of the hands of their leaders before the war could be ended. The Russian ruling family was murdered and replaced by civil war and a Soviet Union. The Austro-Hungarian empire evaporated into the history books. The British empire cracked under the pressure of the carnage, and sociopolitical concessions which would have been unthinkable in 1914 were gladly embraced in order to placate an enraged populace. The French were so numbed by the unendurable losses and tragedies of four years of war that entire armies occasionally refused to obey orders. Germany's armies eventually did the same soon after the United States entered the war. The reigns of the war ultimately slipped from the hands of the men who were supposed to be giving the commands.

If nations are run by their leaders, if wars are fought by those in power, the lesson of World War I is that nations can only endure so much catastrophe. In the 21st century those with the authority to wage war should respect the awesome power it has on the world, especially in a nuclear age. They should remember that war is much more than a tool, it is more than a convenient means of advancing antiquated foreign policy goals or misplaced nationalism. The Great War has taught us that those who forget this lesson do so at their own risk.

On to the next book!