Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Short Takes: “Jack’s Wager" and “The Three Monarchs”

Short Takes is a new feature here that reviews generally short works (“short” defined as able to be read in under an hour).

Jack’s Wager

Both Halloween and Samhain in Ireland happen at roughly the end of the harvest season. Both have pre-Christian roots. And both share an emblem – the jack o’lantern, a hollowed pumpkin with a light inside. Such decorations sit on American front porches on Oct. 31 each year (including my own). The decoration spread in the United States with the large Irish immigrations in the 19th century.

But where did the jack o’lantern come from? Writer Wirton Arvil has a creative suggestion, and describes it in detail in Jack’s Wagers. Using some of the legends and stories that have grown up around the jack o’lantern over the centuries, Arvil tells the story of Jack, a poor man for whom nothing ever seems to go right, but who manages to trick the devil not once but twice.

It’s a folk tale, written for contemporary readers, and it is great fun. One can image the story being told around a campfire on a moonlit Halloween night, the harvest finished, and the farmers and field hands fascinated with the a story of the devil being tricked.

The story is told in both English and Italian.

The Three Monarchs

Anthony Horowitz, writer for the popular British (and PBS) series Foyle’s War and the long running mystery series Midsomer Murders. In 2011, he wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, that was authorized by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And last year, he published a second Holmes novel, Moriarty (reviewed here last month).

He’s also written a Holmes short story, The Three Monarchs, available as a single story. It is remarkably like the original Holmes stories, so good that it could have been written by Conan Doyle himself.

Dr. John Watson has been married for a year, living happily with his wife Mary not far from 221B Baker Street. But, rather naturally, he’s seen little of Holmes during that time, pursuing his medical career to provide for his new family. But he misses the excitement, and one say his wife suggests he visit Holmes.

He arrives as Holmes is talking with Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard (a major character in Moriarty) about a most puzzling case. A burglar has been shot dead by a homeowner. And, as it turns out, the burglar had also visited two neighboring homes, stealing the exact same thing from each – a figurine of Queen Victoria for her Golden Jubilee, of which millions were made and sold. In other words, the figurines are worth virtually nothing. So why would they be stolen?

Leave it to Holmes to find the larger meaning in what seems inconsequential. The Three Monarchs is a story solidly within the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

Top photograph of a jack o’lantern licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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