Thursday, 6 November 2014

Beau Geste by PC Wren: Part 1

published 1924







A pretty state of affairs, bon Dieu, in time of actual war! Here was I approaching the fort in broad light of day, firing my revolver--and not the slightest notice taken! I might have been the entire Touareg nation or the whole German army. . . . No, there must be something wrong, in spite of the peaceful look of things and the safety of the Flag--and I pulled out my field-glasses to see if they would reveal anything missed by the naked eye.

At every embrasure of the breast-high parapet round the flat roof stood a soldier, staring out across the desert, and most of them staring along their levelled rifles too; some of them straight at me. Why? There was no enemy about. Why were they not sleeping the sleep of tired victors, below on their cots in the caserne, while double sentries watched from the high look-out platform? Why no man up there, and yet a man at every embrasure that I could see from where I sat on my camel, a thousand metres distant?

And why did no man move; no man turn to call out to a sergeant that a French officer approached; no man walk to the door leading down from the roof, to inform the Commandant of the fort!


observations: Beau Geste opens with this astonishing setpiece: French troops arrive to relieve a desert fort which has been under attack. It becomes apparent that as the men have been picked off one by one, the remaining troops have kept the bodies up in their positions, and pretended they are firing, in order to convince the attackers that the fort is fully defended. No-one is left alive, but what happened to the last two? And what has happened to Jean le trompette, the first man to enter the fort? The fort ends up in flames - how?

It is a quite stupendous setup, and it would be a sad person who didn’t want to know what had happened.

There are two halves to the story: we then go back some years earlier to young people in a posh house in Devon, growing up together, having adventures, perhaps falling in love, under the watchful eye of a reserved aunt, Lady Patricia. A valuable jewel goes missing: who could have taken it? No-one will admit it: eventually the three Geste brothers – Michael known as Beau, his twin Digby, and young John – separately decide to run away to join the French Foreign Legion in order to diffuse the blame. No, this does not make any sense at all.
 
In fact both aspects of the book are reminiscent of crime novels, and the situation in the fort makes me wonder if Agatha Christie read it before she wrote And Then There Were None, published in 1939.

Beau Geste was a much-loved bestseller, filmed several times, and its picture of life in the French Foreign Legion has entered the English psyche: ‘never ask anyone why they entered the Legion, it is the one forbidden question.’

It’s going to need more than one entry – more tomorrow.

The pictures are publicity stills from the 1926 film of the book, which starred Ronald Colman.

12 comments:

  1. Not something I'm going to be reading or watching I don't think. For some reason my mind veers off on a tangent and I'm reminded of Henri Charriere and his book Papillon which I enjoyed, plus the film of with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman - also very good. Perhaps it's the common thread of Frenchness and the exotic location.

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    1. I'd have thought you might like it - a good action thriller with a bit of a mystery - but it's not as if you don't have enough books lined up...

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  2. Moira - Interesting isn't it how the French Foreign Legion captures the fancy like that. And you're right too: Wren certainly adds all kinds of interesting mysteries to the story - both halves of it. I'll be interested to see your next post on this one. It's certainly, as you say, a classic bestseller.

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    1. He knew how to write an exciting story, that's for sure, with tantalizing situations to keep you reading.

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  3. Very interesting. Of course, I know of the book and the movie, but that is about it. I will wait for more tomorrow.

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    1. I don't know if anyone reads it much these days, which is a pity in some ways.

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    2. There are a good number of reviews at Goodreads added in 2014 for a book this old. Doesn't mean they all read it in 2014, but ... it seems to be well remembered.

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    3. Oh good, I'm glad to hear that....

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  4. Love the 1939 version of the movie but have not read the book - Like you, found the opening setup wonderfullly eerie and mysteriious - the subplot (about a stolen diamond?) seemed to drag by comparison though ...

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    1. 1939 is Gary Cooper isn't it? Excellent, yes. I do think the setup is one of the best ever, even if the rest of the book doesn't really live up to it. But I remember the feeling of satisfaction in the book when you find out the explanation for the trumpeter's disappearance.... like the very best murder stories in fact.

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  5. Moira I have the best memories of the three books: Beau Geste, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal. I read them when I was below fourteen probably and I also very much like the film with Gary Cooper. Now I don't expect to read them again and I don't expect I will enjoy them. I prefer to keep the good memory of my childhood instead. What I like the most about the books was to read the same story through different points of view.

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    1. So glad to find another big fan Jose Ignacio! They were spell-binding to a young person, weren't they? Perhaps you are right and it is best to leave them that way....

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