And Then I Read: THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER and other short novels by Mark Twain

I’ve been reading and reviewing Twain novels from an eBook titled “Mark Twain: The Complete Novels,” though the last few in it are shorter than novel length. The most interesting and difficult read is “The Mysterious Stranger,” one I read and found equally difficult as a teenager. Twain worked on several versions from 1897 to 1908, and did not finish any of them. The published book was cobbled together after his death from two versions.

The story takes place in the remote village of Eseldorf, Austria in 1590. There the narrator, a teenager, Theodor, and his two friends, meet the stranger when out in the countryside. He tells them he is an angel named Satan after his more famous uncle, and the entertains the boys will stories and magic. When he later comes to their village, the boy uses another name, and soon becomes the talk of the town, everyone wants to spend time with him and listen to his clever stories. Soon Satan is involved in all kinds of village matters, and when the boys ask him to help those less fortunate, he does so, but his help always makes things worse, and soon the boys are afraid of the so-called angel, and try to keep him away from their friends and family. What makes this book difficult to read is the accuracy of Twain’s perception about human nature and all its flaws, which he points out through the character of Satan. I’ve never read such a damning condemnation of humanity as in this work, as Satan points out how cruel people are to each other and their animals, how superstition, greed and envy overcome their better natures, and how often they make the wrong choices. Twain’s writing cuts too well into all of us.

The other short works include “A Horse’s Tale,” in which the narrator is a horse, Soldier Boy, owned by Buffalo Bill at a time when he was working as a scout at Fort Paxton in the American southwest when Cavalry troops there were fighting Indians of several tribes. Much of the story is initially about a girl, Cathy, who has been sent from Spain to live with her uncle, the fort commander. Cathy is apparently based on one of Twain’s daughters, and she is full of charm and soon has the entire fort at her command, including Soldier Boy and all the other local horses, dogs and animals. At one point, Cathy is captured by Indians, and that makes for thrilling, though politically incorrect reading, but the true purpose of the story is only revealed toward the end when Cathy returns to Spain with Soldier Boy, who is stolen and becomes a horse used in bullfighting. The cruel treatment of bulls and horses both are the message, but that section seems tacked on at the end of a different story.

The third short novel is “A Double Barreled Detective Story,” contains two complex tales of attempted revenge. It begins in Virginia with a young wife abused and shamed by a husband who despises her. Her son by the man, Archy, has an uncanny ability to track and identify smells, like a bloodhound, and his mother sets him on the track of his father to find and ruin him. The second half of the story takes place in a gold-mining town in California where Archy has followed but lost the trail of his father. There we meet Fetlock Jones, a nephew of Sherlock Holmes, who is abused and hated by his employer, silver-miner Flint Buckner. Jones contrives a devious plan to blow up Buckner in his cabin, one he feels can’t ever point to him, but his plan is complicated when Sherlock himself visits the town. After the murder, Holmes declares he can solve the case, but instead gets everything wrong. Twain intended this story to be a satire of the Holmes mysteries, and it works pretty well if you can accept a Holmes who is far less perceptive than in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about him, and the two revenge tales tie up neatly together at the end.

Of the three, “The Mysterious Stranger” is the most interesting and worth reading.

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