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"Though most of the facts were familiar to me, I had not sufficiently appreciated their relative importance, nor their connection with each other." [SILV]

Amundsen's Pole vault

As readers of the Sherlock Holmes adventures know, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a master of the short story. He wrote in many genres: mystery, horror, science fiction, adventure, romance and humor.

The Captain of the Polestar was published by Longman, Green and Co. in 1890. The version I read was a public domain trade paperback printing by the Cambridge Scholars Publishing Classic Texts. I was struck by two broad themes that run through Polestar: love in its many forms, for good or ill, and the sea.

I realized how often those themes occur the Canon. Cases such as "The Gloria Scott", "The Cardboard Box," "The Adventure of Black Peter," "The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips," "The Adventure of Abbey Grange" and The Sign of the Four all have nautical elements as well as such untold tales as the cutter Alicia, the British barque Sophy Anderson, the ship Matilda Briggs - which was associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, and the story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

Many lovers abound as well: Irene Adler and Godfrey Norton, Jefferson Hope and Lucy Ferrier, Birdy Edwards and Ettie Shafter; of course John Watson and Mary Morstan. There are also the ill-suited suitors like Violet Smith and Bob Carruthers and Jack Woodley, Elsie Patrick and Abe Slaney and Professor Presbury and Alice Morphy. Unlike the Canon, Spiritualism is touched in a number of stories, even those that have no supernatural elements. The modern reader may also be surprised by the elements of unintended incest, sadism, and necrophilia in some of the tales.

The stories in Polestar run the gamut of genres listed above. A few have direct Canonical connections, others situations or phrases that obliquely recall the Holmes stories; some have no connection at all.

"The Captain of the Pole-Star"

(Temple Bar magazine, January 1883) 
Michael Dirda on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere Episode 38: On Conan Doyle called this "probably the first of the great short stories he wrote and it is a hauntingly beautiful story filled with pathos.…" Like Doyle himself, the protagonist John M’Alister Ray is a medical student severing as ship’s doctor aboard an arctic whaler. Doyle captures perfectly whaling life and the otherworldly beauty of the arctic. Captain Craigie keeps the Pole-Star among the ice floes long past the time she should have returned to Scotland, searching for something…. He is a man haunted in more than one sense of the word. The story explores one of Doyle’s constant themes, also touched on in “John Huxford’s Hiatus” and “The Ring of Thoth”, how love (or sometimes obsession) transcends time, space and occasionally death.

"J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement"

(The Cornhill Magazine, January 1884) 
Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters calls the acceptance of “Statement” by one of Doyle’s literary heroes James Payn, editor of The Cornhill, England foremost literary magazine “his first big break in literature”. The practice at the time was to publish magazine fiction without a by-line. Some speculated that the author of the popular story could be Robert Louis Stevenson. Doyle received a letter from Cassells magazine (addressed to “The author of Habakuk Jephson”) to write for them.

After graduating from medical school, Doyle again severed as a ship’s doctor, this time on the Mayumba, which sailed along the West African coast and that experience served as part of the inspiration for this story; another part being the famous derelict ship the Mary Celeste.

The story opens with the reporting of the publicly known facts of brigantine Marie Celeste, discovered deserted at sea ten years earlier. Then the narrator states that he was aboard the Marie Celeste and now is the time to lay the true facts before the public.

J. Habakuk Jephson graduated from Harvard medical school, shared a practice with Dr. Willis of Brooklyn and when the Civil War broke out enlisted in the 113th New York Regiment. 
"I was severely wounded at Antietam, and would probably have perished on the field had it not been for the kindness of a gentleman named Murray, who had me carried to his house and provided me with every comfort. Thanks to his charity, and to the nursing which I received from his black domestics, I was soon able to get about the plantation with the help of a stick.” 
The Canonical connection should be obvious: Watson was wounded at Maiwand, rescued by his orderly Murray who brought him safely to British lines. At the base hospital in Peshawur “I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the verandah, when I was struck down by enteric fever”. [STUD] 

One of Murray’s domestics was named Martha (Canonical connection: Von Bork’s domestic was also named Martha [LAST]) who gave Jephson a smooth black stone that resembles a human ear. Years pass. Jephson marries, has a thriving medical practice, but due to illness he must take a long sea voyage for his health. Jephson boards the Marie Celeste in Boston where one of his fellow passengers is an educated mixed-race man with a melodious voice but an unhealthy yellow and pocked complexion and a right hand of which his four fingers had been loped off -- Septimus Goring of New Orleans. After a few days at sea, mysterious and tragic events start to befall the passengers and crew until the true horror is revealed.

For 21st century readers "Statement," with its commonplace 19th century views and terminology on race, maybe difficult to read. However, it had an important place in Doyle’s literary life, and also had influence on real-life events. In The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved (1976, revised 1986) Larry Kusche, in his chapter on the Mary Celeste, wrote, 
"Doyle’s story, which appeared eleven years after the event, was readily believed because much of it was very close to the truth or was deduced from true statements. He named his fictional ship the Marie Celeste, and many later writers have referred to the real ship by that name. Much of what is now told about the Mary Celeste is really from Doyle’s Marie Celeste.”

Doyle’s "confession" format was not unusual. Such stories appeared frequently in 19th century media. Says Kusche: “Fifty years after the [Mary Celeste] incident ‘confessions’ were still being made by sailors claiming to have been members of the crew. None of the stories could be substantiated and today the fate of the occupants of the Mary Celeste is as much a mystery as the day the ship was found deserted at sea.”

There are two more Canonical connections in the story: Jephson’s partner in his post-war practice is named Jackson. Jackson takes Watson’s practice when he helps Holmes in "The Crooked Man." Jephson’s fellow passenger John Harton thinks Goring is a detective based on his scrap-book of newspaper clipping of various crimes. Of course, Holmes kept scrap-books and commonplace books filled with news clipping of crime and other interesting facts [EMPT, REDC, 3STU].

"The Great Keinplatz Experiment"

(Belgravia Magazine, July 1885) 
An early Freaky Friday story. Alexis von Baumgarten, Regius Professor of Physiology at the University of Keinplatz, believes the human spirit can exist outside the body. Fritz von Hartmann, "wild, reckless Fritz, as dashing a young fellow as ever hailed from the Rhinelands," the Professor’s best student and in love with the Professor’s daughter Elise, is asked by von Baumgarten to help him perform this dangerous experiment. The Professor’s wife objects to Fritz seeing Elise, so Fritz extracts a promise from his tutor of Elise’s hand in marriage for his help. Von Baumgarten agrees and at the appropriate time, in a lecture hall full of some of the greatest minds in Europe, the Professor hypnotizes Fritz and himself. Their spirits leave their bodies, but unbeknownst to the assembled guest and the experimenters, the spirits return to the wrong bodies. Hijinks ensue. One of Doyle’s comedies, a satiric look at academia and science.

"The Man from Archangel"

(London Society, January 1885) 
John M'Vittie, a misanthrope dedicated to science moves to a lonely cottage on Mansie Bay, Caithness, Scotland with his housekeeper to conduct experiments and research. One night during a terrible storm a ship smashes apart upon the reef in the bay. The housekeeper implores M'Vittie to help the crew, but he doesn’t care about their fate. He goes to the beach and by a signal light on the ship M'Vittie sees one man on the ship, less afraid of death than the others, lash a woman to a spar in such a way to keep her head above water and throw her clear of the reef. Under a massive wave the signal light goes out and the ship disappears. “As I watched those things my manhood overcame my philosophy” and M'Vittie takes his boat to the ocean and rescues the woman. She turns out to be Russian and ignorant of English. At once, M’Vittie regrets his act: “I began to wish when I saw her that I had never saved her, for here was an end of my privacy”, but over the weeks he manages to tolerate her.

M’Vittie soon finds out she’s not the lone survivor of the wreck; the man who threw the woman (she had managed to write "Sophie Ramusine" on a piece of paper) into the ocean, Ourganeff by name, comes upon M’Vittie, confesses his love of Sophie, calls her his wife although they are not married ("We are man and wife in the sight of Heaven. We are bound by higher laws than those of earth."). Sophie is clearly afraid of him and through obstinacy more than anything else M’Vittie refuses to turn her over to the Russian. On another stormy night, events come to a head.

This is the least successful story in the collection for me, from the fact that Sophie apparently writes her name in Roman, not Cyrillic, lettering to M’Vittie’s conclusion of final events, one that Doyle clearly wants us to believe, but goes against everything that has happened before. 

Canonical connection: For the Sherlockian, the interest is in John M’Vittie, a scientific type that comes across as a less pleasant Sherlock Holmes—without the deductive abilities. 
“I dislike my fellow-mortals. Justice compels me to add that they appear for the most part to dislike me. I hate their little crawling ways, their conventionalities, their deceits, their narrow rights and wrongs. They take offence at my brusque outspokenness, my disregard for their social laws, my impatience of all constraint. Among my books and my drugs in my lonely den at Mansie I could let the great drove of the human race pass onwards with their politics and inventions and tittle-tattle, and I remained behind stagnant and happy. Not stagnant either, for I was working in my own little groove, and making progress.” Often I forgot my meals, and when old Madge summoned me to my tea I found my dinner lying untouched upon the table.” “I soothed my spirit with strong black tobacco….” “For many years I had cared little for the face of a woman.” “I shut myself up in the laboratory all the morning, continuing a research which I was making upon the nature of the allotropic forms of carbon and of sulphur.” 

In a year, Doyle would be writing the more brilliant, and likeable, Holmes.

"That Little Square Box"

(London Society, December 1881) 
A story that looks at domestic terror anxiety, which, sadly still has relevance today. Nervous and milquetoast narrator Hammond boards a ship in Boston bound for England. “With my usual love for solitude” Hammond sits behind a pile of luggage and overhears the conversation of two late arriving passengers. He’s convinced that the little square wooden box that they keep from view of others is a bomb. However, he’s too afraid of being wrong and humiliated to take immediate action: “I have remarked that I am a physical coward. I am a moral one also. It is seldom that the two defects are united to such a degree in the one character.” 

A friend, Dick Merton, happens to be on ship and Hammond confides in him. Merton dismissed his fears, but agrees to keep an eye on the two with Hammond. The more he hears from Flannigan and Müller, in the smoking room and, in the evening, in the dining room, the more convinced he is that they plan to blow up the ship at 10 pm. Hammond dithers until he’s forced to leap in to action.

Canonical connections: "The very name of 'Flannigan' smacked of Fenianism, while 'Müller' suggested nothing but socialism and murder." While the Fenian bombings that occurred in England in the second half of the 19th century never made it into the Canon, and the armed fight for Irish independence is mentioned in "His Last Bow," German anarchism was the red herring Jefferson Hope used in the Drebber murder when he wrote Rache in blood on the wall in A Study in Scarlet
“An hour passed, and the Captain was still on the bridge. He was talking to one of the passengers, a retired naval officer, and the two were deep in debate concerning some abstruse point in navigation. I could see the red tips of their cigars from where I lay.” 
Doyle would rework this scene to greater effect with Von Bork and Von Herling; 
“They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below, the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.” [LAST]

"John Huxford's Hiatus" 

(The Cornhill Magazine, June 1888) 
Our lives are dependent on the contingencies of history, Doyle tells us. If Don Diego Salvador had not opened a cork factory in England with cheap Spanish labor, then cork prices would not have fallen; the firm of Fairbairn Brothers of Brisport would not have closed laying off all the workers; Mr. Charles Fairbairn would not have told his experienced foreman John Huxford of an opening in a factory in Montreal; Huxford would not have put off wedding Mary until he could earn enough money to send for her and her Granny; and upon landing in Quebec Huxford would not have been directed by a pimp to stay at a cheap inn run by crooks who when robbing him smashed the back of Huxford’s skull in, causing him to lose his memory. Unable to remember who he is, Huxford struggles to rebuild his life.

Canonical connections: While Sherlockians will naturally think of Watson and Morstan when reading of two lovers named John and Mary, Huxford’s story more resembles that of Francis Hay Moulton [NOBL] and Henry Wood [CROO]. Both men were thought long dead by their inamoratas.

"Cyprian Overbeck Wells -- A Literary Mosaic" 

(The Boy's Own Paper, December 1886) 
A struggling writer falls asleep in his chair after a fulfilling meal and dreams he is sitting at a table with eminent men and women of English letters, past and current, all there to help him write the story of Cyprian Overbeck Wells. Doyle’s gentle burlesque of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Tobias George Smollett, Sir Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer Lytton, while no doubt enjoyed by the young teenage readers of The Boy's Own Paper, today it would best be appreciated by English majors who have read - or even heard of - those authors. Just imagine, though, if Doyle was living today what fun he would have lampooning the styles and concoctions of the pasticheurs who have unearthed Watson’s old battered tin dispatch box. 

"John Barrington Cowles "

(Cassell's Saturday Journal, 12-19 April 1884) 
Armitage narrates the story of his friend John Barrington Cowles’ death. At the opening of the Royal Scottish Academy in the spring of 1879, they both espy Kate Northcott: 
“In my whole life I have never seen such a classically perfect countenance. It was the real Greek type—the forehead broad, very low, and as white as marble, with a cloudlet of delicate locks wreathing round it, the nose straight and clean cut, the lips inclined to thinness, the chin and lower jaw beautifully rounded off, and yet sufficiently developed to promise unusual strength of character.” 
Cowles falls in love at first sight, but she is engaged to Archibald Reeves. This is not her first engagement.  William Prescott had died some time earlier under mysterious circumstances. Months later, Armitage runs in to Reeves, who has broken off his engagement to Kate and has taken to drink.  "Don't go!" Reeves tells Armitage. "I feel better when you are here. I am safe from her then…. Ah! you don't know her. She is the devil! Beautiful—beautiful; but the devil!"

More time passes and when Armitage next sees Cowles, his friend is engaged to Kate. Spending time with the couple only increases Armitage’s unease over Miss Northcott and worry for his friend.

I went round with my friend a few days afterwards to call upon Miss Northcott. I remember that, as we went down Abercrombie Place, our attention was attracted by the shrill yelping of a dog—which noise proved eventually to come from the house to which we were bound. We were shown upstairs, where I was introduced to old Mrs. Merton, Miss Northcott's aunt, and to the young lady herself. She looked as beautiful as ever, and I could not wonder at my friend's infatuation. Her face was a little more flushed than usual, and she held in her hand a heavy dog-whip, with which she had been chastising a small Scotch terrier, whose cries we had heard in the street. The poor brute was cringing up against the wall, whining piteously, and evidently completely cowed.
"So Kate," said my friend, after we had taken our seats, "you have been falling out with Carlo again."
"Only a very little quarrel this time," she said, smiling charmingly. "He is a dear, good old fellow, but he needs correction now and then." Then, turning to me, "We all do that, Mr. Armitage, don't we? What a capital thing if, instead of receiving a collective punishment at the end of our lives, we were to have one at once, as the dogs do, when we did anything wicked. It would make us more careful, wouldn't it?"
I acknowledged that it would.
"Supposing that every time a man misbehaved himself a gigantic hand were to seize him, and he were lashed with a whip until he fainted"—she clenched her white fingers as she spoke, and cut out viciously with the dog-whip—"it would do more to keep him good than any number of high-minded theories of morality."

Run, John Barrington Cowles, run! But this is one of those stories where Doyle explores the intersection of love, obsession and animal magnetism—the preternatural dominance of one person’s will to control another’s, a theme he also explores in the stories “The Parasite” and “The Winning Shot”. Doyle uses mood and incident to have the reader share in Armitage’s growing horror. If the ending is less than it could be, we can blame Victorian reticence at addressing taboo subjects, rather than Doyle’s art.

Canonical connections: Kate Northcott’s little terrier shares the same name as Jephro Rucastle’s vicious mastiff as well as the Ferguson's' spaniel in "The Copper Beeches" and "The Sussex Vampire," respectively.. And her treatment of the dog belies her true nature, as did Sir Eustace's treatment of Lady Brackenstall's dog in "The Abbey Grange."

Armitage and Cowles visit the Isle of May,
“an island near the mouth of the Firth of Forth, which, except in the tourist season, is singularly barren and desolate. Beyond the keeper of the lighthouse there are only one or two families of poor fisher-folk, who sustain a precarious existence by their nets, and by the capture of cormorants and solan geese.” 
No mention of a politician, though. (“…the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant [VEIL])

"Elias B. Hopkins, The Parson of Jackman's Gulch" 

(London Society, December 1885) 
In 1853, “Parson” Elias B. Hopkins arrived in the gold mining camp of Jackman’s Gulch hundred and twenty miles to the north of Ballarat in the Australian bush. 
“It is quite certain that during the first few months his presence had a marked effect in diminishing the excessive use both of strong drinks and of stronger adjectives which had been characteristic of the little mining settlement. Under his tuition, men began to understand that the resources of their native language were less limited than they had supposed, and that it was possible to convey their impressions with accuracy without the aid of a gaudy halo of profanity.” 
The self-styled parson’s influence over the miners will be felt for many years.

My favorite story in the collection. Doyle perfectly captures mining life in a lawless wilderness. Unlike the sometimes slapstick humor of “The Great Keinplatz Experiment”, with a deft turn of phrase Doyle achieves some wonderfully playful and droll results. Canonical connections: Ballarat is mentioned in The Sign of the Four and especially in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," where John Turner was better known as the Australian highway robber Black Jack of Ballarat.

"The Ring of Thoth "

(The Cornhill Magazine, January 1890) 
English Egyptologist John Vansittart Smith travels to Paris to consult the Egyptian collection at the Louvre. Falling asleep in a half-hidden corner chair, he awakes to find that the museum has long been closed—and he is not alone.
Canonical connection: Written after A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four but before "A Scandal in Bohemia," Vansittart Smith is another of those scientific types who can be seen as a variation or take-off of Holmes:
“Mr. John Vansittart Smith, F.R.S., of 147-A Gower Street, was a man whose energy of purpose and clearness of thought might have placed him in the very first rank of scientific observers. He was the victim, however, of a universal ambition which prompted him to aim at distinction in many subjects rather than preeminence in one.”
“The warmest admirers of John Vansittart Smith could hardly claim for him that he was a handsome man. His high-beaked nose and prominent chin had something of the same acute and incisive character which distinguished his intellect.”

The Captain of the Polestar (Amazon US | Amazon UK) is a very solid and worthwhile book. Readers of the Canon already know that Doyle is a writer of the first water. That talent is also on display here, his first published short story collection.

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