The Tragedy of the Korosko – why some lit remains obscure

Wathen, George - Egypt sketch3

I’m afraid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko checks most of the bad boxes on the mainstream reader’s list; to name a few: exoticism, imperialism, stereotypical females, and racist language.  I had high hopes, based on some reviews I’d read, but even accounting for the mindset of the times wasn’t enough to give it more than 3 out of 5 stars on my scale.

Doyle covered a pretty vast range of subjects apart from Sherlock Holmes.  Some of his other topics include medieval knights (The White Company), Napoleonic soldiers (Brigadier Gerard), Huguenot emigrants (The Refugees), and contemporary horror (Round the Red Lamp, The Captain of the Polestar, etc).  I’d recommend any of those, even if some are dated, simply because they transcend their “datedness” and are good stories even today.

I guess that’s why Korosko was disappointing – I expected more from Doyle, yet I was under the aching suspicion all the way through that he was doing what a writer should try to avoid: writing for his audience.  This is a great technique if you want to make a living writing…it’s a great mistake if you want to be a great author.  It’s like buying trendy furniture; you will be admired immediately, and ridiculed in the next season of House Hunters.  Korosko is, unfortunately, more trendy than timeless.

The plot follows a group of white travellers taking a Nile cruise to see the ruins of Egypt, ca. 1895.  The travellers are split by their nationalities and denominations, which gives them cause for disagreements, both friendly and heated, on the way.  Their tour takes them on the edge between British-Egyptian-held Egypt and the lands controlled by radical Islamist bedouins.  On one of their excursions, they are attacked by the Islamists, who force them to make a choice, either to convert to Islam or die.

The premise is excellent, and not dated at all.  I enjoyed the first part of the book quite a bit, and though Wikipedia says there is a “strong defence of British Imperialism,” that is a blanket statement and not necessarily true.  Doyle presents both sides of the topic, in different views of his characters, including one we would empathize with today:

    “Well now,” said Headingly, in his slow, thoughtful fashion, “suppose I grant you that the Dervishes could overrun Egypt, and suppose also that you English are holding them out, what I’m never done asking is, what reason have you for spending all these millions of dollars and the lives of so many of your men? What do you get out of it, more than France gets, or Germany, or any other country, that runs no risk and never lays out a cent?”
    “There are a good many Englishmen who are asking themselves that question,” remarked Cecil Brown. “It’s my opinion that we have been the policemen of the world long enough. We policed the seas for pirates and slavers. Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilisation. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jehad in the Soudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right. And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals. We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it? Let Europe do its own dirty work.”

The opposing argument follows next – perhaps this is where Wikipedia gets its “defence of British Imperialism.”  However, I was not sure which side Doyle was on, and I’m sure he gave both a fair representation.

I liked the characters quite a bit.  Colonel Cochrane Cochrane should be remembered as one of Doyle’s best minor characters, if for nothing else but this commentary:

Colonel Cochrane Cochrane was one of those officers whom the British Government, acting upon a large system of averages, declares at a certain age to be incapable of further service, and who demonstrate the worth of such a system by spending their declining years in exploring Morocco, or shooting lions in Somaliland. 

Where the book begins to fall short is after the travellers are captured.  The terrorists are laughably accommodating (seriously, drawing lots to see who gets the camel?), as well as dim-witted enough to let the prisoners talk to each other throughout the journey.  Even the horrors which happen do not seem to produce the effect upon the travellers that I would have expected.  Maybe I’m quite biased, because terrorism is a much closer enemy to us today than it was in Doyle’s time.  Still, for someone who so masterfully wrote about moral dilemmas in the Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle doesn’t go as far in Korosko to make us, or the characters, feel a vital sense of fear and urgency, as he does in his other books.

Ordinarily, I’d recommend it as a “light” read, but the subject matter is far from light.  So if you’re a Doyle completist (as I’m on my way to being), or if you are looking for a quick turn-of-the-century read, then you might want to read this one – otherwise, there are better Doyle books to read.

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