When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.
Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.
It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.
Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.
Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.
This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.
I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!