Conan Doyle was very enthusiastic about his historical fiction, considering it to be his best work. He may well have been right. His medieval adventure novel The White Company is one of the classics of the genre. The Gerard stories differ in tone from his medieval stories but they are every bit as good.
Etienne Gerard is a dashing hussar officer in Napoleon’s Grand Army. The stories are narrated in the first person and it is immediately apparent that Gerard has a very high opinion of himself. He is in fact a very brave officer, a skillful horseman and a fine swordsman. He is conscientious and keen. He is unfortunately a man of strictly mediocre intelligence and very limited imagination. His greatest fault is his absurd over-confidence. His faith in his own judgment is unlimited, and sadly misplaced. The Emperor himself has described Gerard as having the thickest head but the stoutest heart in his army.
A conceited dimwit could have been a rather unattractive character but Gerard is someone we cannot help liking. He means well and he tries so hard. Mostly though it’s his total lack of self-awareness that makes him so endearing.
The Gerard stories may well have been part of the inspiration for George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. That might seem like an odd claim since Flashman and Gerard are very different types of men. Both sets of stories do have one major thing in common though, a kind of mock-heroic tone. Both Flashman and Gerard appear to the world to be the very quintessence of the hero, but in both cases it’s an illusion. Flashman is actually a bully, a coward and a cad. If he does anything heroic it is quite by accident. Gerard is an honourable and gallant soldier but the combination of his limited intelligence and his ludicrous over-confidence makes him a slightly dubious asset to Napoleon’s army. Like Flashman he is more likely to commit his feats of heroism, by blundering into them.
There is another similarity between the two characters. Both have an enormous liking for the ladies. Both are in fact breathtakingly promiscuous although of course Conan Doyle is somewhat coy about describing Gerard’s conquests in detail (and it is possible that Gerard’s vast ego has inflated his success with the ladies somewhat).
The other quality that the Gerard stories and the Flashman stories have in common is that they are extraordinarily enjoyable. Conan Doyle took historical fiction seriously but he never made the mistake of thinking that good writing does not need to be entertaining.
Blending humour with action is quite a tricky balancing act. The humour cannot just be a gratuitous addition. It must flow naturally from the story. In this case Brigadier Gerard, our narrator, believes he is simply recounting his adventures and his amazing feats of heroism. He is not trying to be amusing. The humour comes from his own absurdities of which Gerard remains blissfully unaware. At the same time Conan Doyle cannot allow Gerard to become too ridiculous. We must be able to admire his very genuine daring and courage and his formidable determination. It’s a balancing act that Conan Doyle manages with superb skill.
The Medal of Brigadier Gerard was the first of the Gerard stories to appear in the Strand Magazine. It is 1814 and Napoleon is fighting desperately to save what is left of his empire. He is hopelessly outnumbered but he has devised a plan which may yet save the day. It is essential that the details of the plan should reach Paris as soon as possible. Two brave officers are selected for this dangerous mission. To ensure that at least one copy of the message gets through they will follow different routes. One of the two officers is Brigadier Gerard. Gerard understands the vital importance of his mission. Except that he doesn’t understand at all, which is what makes the story so clever and entertaining.
This story also marks Gerard’s first encounter with British officers and there is a good deal of amusement to be derived from Gerard’s extraordinary capacity for entirely misunderstanding everything to do with English life, culture and social habits.
How the King Held the Brigadier tells the story of Gerard’s period as a prisoner-of-war at Dartmoor. He is determined to escape but as usual, despite his boldness and courage, his plans go disastrously awry. his one is great fun.
The excellent How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio is one of several stories in which Gerard undertakes a secret mission on the Emperor’s personal instructions. It is 1807, Gerard is a young lieutenant, and the emperor’s past threatens to catch up to him.
How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom shows us another side to Gerard. This time he is engaged in a purely private adventure and he will need to use his brains to get out of a particularly awkward predicament. This could be a problem since brains are not really Gerard’s strong point. We find however that although Gerard lacks imagination and intellectual subtlety he is not after all a complete fool. He does have perseverance, mental toughness, a certain amount of resourcefulness and is quite good when it comes to finding immediate practical solutions. We know that Gerard, despite his own fantasies on the matter, would have been a catastrophically incompetent general but as a junior officer he is reasonably efficient and effective. It adds some depth to the character to see him confronted by the sort of problem that demands the very qualities that he does possess. It’s also a wonderfully action-packed little story.
How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs has Gerard hunting for a notorious brigand, a renegade English aristocrat. Gerard has a surprising ally this time - the captain of a troop of British dragoons. The brigand, known popularly as Marshal Millefleurs, has his headquarters in a very sturdy castle. This brigand also has the advantage of being both clever and unscrupulous, surely too clever for poor Gerard. But Gerard can be ruthless as well and he can show occasional flashes of very good sense. A fine stirring story.
In How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil it is 1814 and the end has come for Napoleon, but the Emperor has hopes that perhaps one day he will have a chance to retrieve his throne, in which case there are certain papers that must be secured at all costs. Gerard and two other officers must ensure that those papers are safe. Not one of the stronger stories in the collection but still reasonably entertaining.
In How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom it is 1813 and events are turning against Napoleon. Gerard is caught up in a dangerous game with the highest possible stakes, the very survival of Napoleon’s empire. His opponent in this game is a beautiful and very clever woman. A more serious story and perhaps not a great Gerard story but it does provide a suitable conclusion to the first collection of Gerard stories.
Each of these stories has a plot twist. The reader will see the twist coming. The reader is supposed to see it coming. The fun comes from the fact that not once does poor old Gerard see it coming.
These are generally light-hearted rollicking tales of adventure very liberally laced with humour but they have the occasional grim moment - at times surprisingly grim.
Conan Doyle was one of the grand masters of the genre. A couple of the stories are slightly weak but six of the eight stories are true classics of historical fiction as well as terrific swashbuckling adventure tales. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard is superlative entertainment. Highly recommended.