Friday, March 25, 2011

Adventure classics -- Running away from home

Beau Geste
by P. C. Wren
Is running away from home our earliest daydream?  Sometimes I still fantasize about it, but my daughter says she won’t change the cat litter boxes, so I stay.  Running away is a literary genre to itself, but it often comes with the caution that, after all, there’s no place like home.  British author P.C. Wren probably never set foot in a barracks of the French Foreign Legion, but he tapped into the vein of yearning it symbolizes, striking gold with his best-known novel, Beau Geste, in 1924.  From the several movie adaptations, modern readers will expect the novel to open with the eerie stillness of Fort Zinderneuf in the Sahara, a fort where dead soldiers still watch from embrasures within the walls.  So I was startled to find that the edition I picked up in a junk shop, illustrated with stills from the silent movie version starring Ronald Colman, spent its first dozen pages on a conversation between two minor characters.  Literary hooks have changed over the past eight decades.

The minor character who begins the book, English civil servant George Lawrence, is a likely reflection of Wren himself when he resigned from the Indian Education Service in 1917.  Maybe he joined the French Foreign Legion following the resignation, as some admirers would like to believe.  But that a 42-year-old master of arts with two children still young enough to be dependent on him would join the Legion seems as unlikely as my escape to Tahiti.  Besides the obvious details in Beau Geste reflecting a pre-World War I setting, Wren was writing a book with a Legion background – The Wages of Virtue -- as early as 1914.  A former schoolmaster with several textbooks and novels already to his credit, he almost certainly was a good enough researcher to put together memoirs and conversations with Legionnaires he met on his travels to form his convincing settings.

The scene that finds a letter promising an answer to the secret of the stolen “Blue Water” sapphire in the hand of a dead French non-com qualifies as one of the best locked-room murder mysteries as well as one of the greatest red herrings in literature.  But there’s much more adventure, bloodshed and mystification to come before the mystery is solved.

Wren’s first wife died apparently while he was still in India.  In 1927, he married Isabel Smith, whose first husband, a civil engineer employed in the Indian education service, divorced her after naming Wren as co-respondent.  It’s tempting to imagine Wren, if not as the quixotic Michael “Beau” Geste of his novel, at least with similarities to George Lawrence and Beau’s younger brother John.  At the book’s end, Lawrence returns to the married woman he has long loved in vain, now freed from her husband.  John’s childhood sweetheart Isobel also waits for him, “more beautiful than ever, and, if possible, more sweet and loving . . . .”  (Parentheses are the author’s.)  For both men, everything they wanted most had been waiting at home for them all along.

(If you’ve never read this classic adventure, it’s available at and  But you’re not getting my copy with the Ronald Colman pictures.)

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