The Complete Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle
It's not often that you get a book endorsed by both Philip Pullman and Winston Churchill. But then, Conan Doyle's French cavalry officer has been around for nearly 120 years, and has been read by five or six generations.
His Napoleonic Wars buckle-swashing still gathers fans, and on a new crest of Doylemania (watch for the superb, modernised BBC Sherlock Holmes, coming - I hope - to a channel near us) Gerard has been reissued in one pleasant paperback.
There are 17 stories, prefaced by the earlier A Foreign Office Romance, in which a devilishly clever French agent carries out a matching, treaty-saving mission. Narrated by Gerard in his egotistical old age, they all focus on the gloriously vain young officer of half a century back, utterly confident of his gallantry in war and love ("Fortune was my friend. She is a woman, and cannot resist a dashing hussar"), and his dazzling intellect ("So simple and so daring was my plan that I could not restrain a cry of delight").
The titles tell you what to expect of contents and tone: "How the Brigadier Took the Field ... Held the King ... Saved the Army ... Bore Himself at Waterloo ... Played for a Kingdom ... Lost His Ear".
He escapes from Dartmoor Prison (the perfidious and puzzling English are never far away), aids Napoleon and carries out a secret assignment with him, faces murderous Italians, fanatical Germans and incomprehensible Spanish, dallies with dozens of delicious demoiselles and is eased into marriage by a dangerous bull.
The tone is slyly genial. The plots trot, canter, gallop, charge.
Conan Doyle was incapable of writing a dull narrative, and barely capable of writing a straighforward one.
Enjoy the fiction, appreciate the neat factual introductions, hope for a BBC series on this superbly self-satisfied specimen as well.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.