When I was a youngster it was around this time of year that as a family we would head into the centre of Sheffield to look around the shops and compile our Christmas wish lists. In those days there was a beautiful Puffin Classics imprint and I decided that what I really wanted was “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain (appropriately for a now fan of GAD fiction a tale of physical doubles and mistaken identity) but that I would also put another of the series on my list.
I was lucky enough to receive both books and whilst I gobbled up the Twain first, it was “Beau Geste” that stuck with me and became something of an obsession. I got the double video cassette of the 1982 TV series, designed myself a birthday cake of a legionnaire, ran away to join the legion after accidentally killing a man in my English homework, and wrote a piece of French A-level coursework based around the hideous “La Gloire de Mon Père” by Marcel Pagnol, re-telling the story from the perspective of an old rifle which had seen better days in the legion and was now reduced to pheasant hunting!
The book begins with Major Henri de Beaujolais relating his recent experiences to George Lawrence, a fellow traveller, as they cross Africa before returning to Europe. He was in charge of a relief column sent to Fort Zinderneuf in the middle of the Sahara. Upon arriving he found that although the French flag was still flying and the fort seemed to be fully manned in fact every embrasure was filled with a dead man. The gates were bolted so one of his men climbed the walls to open them from the inside. He does not do so and, fearing a mutiny from his superstitious troops, de Beaujolais is forced to follow him in. Here he finds a further two bodies on the roof, one laid out respectfully and the other a sergeant-major who holds a jewel in one hand and a letter in the other, which is a confession from the man who stole the “Blue Water”. Further mysterious events occurred but neither de Beaujolais nor Lawrence can make any sense of it.
The second part of the book is a narrative by John Geste, the youngest of three brothers, which recounts the evening that the “Blue Water” sapphire was stolen from their guardian, Aunt Patricia, following which Michael and Digby Geste both flee leaving letters confessing to the crime. John does not believe either is responsible but are trying to protect the real thief and, as has he has done since childhood, he follows them in his turn. He enlists in the French Foreign Legion, something they had previously talked about, and is very relieved when he catches up with them in Algeria. From there their road leads inexorably to the charnel house of Zinderneuf and eventually to the revelation of the culprit whose actions set the whole story in motion.
The Leonaur version that I now have is unabridged but I would recommend the slightly abridged Puffin version mentioned above as it removes a completely unnecessary and anti-semitic visit to a pawnbroker and has a much tighter final chapter.
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I was much less emotional on this re-reading, the first in at least ten years, but I still enjoyed it very much. Wren wrote two sequels, neither of which had such a good premise, and included a piece of retconning that I never checked properly to see if it really would have fitted with the first book.