The Firm of Girdlestone
by Arthur Conan Doyle

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Chatto and Windus: London, 1890
399 pages

July 2013

Ships & diamonds, romance & adventure

John and Ezra Girdlestone, father and son, run a British merchant company trading to the African coast with several sailing ships, all dangerously ill-maintained. Their small office is in London, their business is quite personally run, and the firm and its owners are well respected in the City by the 1870s. John Girdlestone is deeply and ostentatiously religious, to the cynical amazement of his son. The senior Girdlestone also is the tightly-controlling guardian of an heiress not quite of age, Kate Harston. This young lady is a cousin of Tom Dimsdale, college-age son of a physician. These two families and their impingement are at the center of A. Conan Doyle's psychological-adventure novel The Firm of Girdlestone.

Of other significant characters I'll single out retired Major Tobias Clutterbuck, a habitue of card tables and overflowing with Indian Army reminiscences and anecdotes; and Hamilton Miggs, competent but hard-drinking captain of the firm's Black Eagle. All of these and the secondary characters could be stock types, and indeed when we first encounter them, they seem disappointingly so. But thanks to Doyle's authorial empathy and care, they all develop not merely interesting quirks, but unexpected depths and complexities.

The setting is largely in London, with excursions to South Africa, the English countryside, and the high seas. Conan Doyle rather takes London for granted here (unlike in the Sherlock Holmes stories), but his descriptive powers really come alive in the rural scenes and especially in the sea-going ones, where the physical adventure (in addition to the ethical, psychological, and financial tensions) is screwed to a high pitch.

A neat element of the novel is the firm's attempt at a corner in diamonds — to manipulate, control for a time, and thereby reap huge profits from the international market for diamonds — with careful plotting, financial tension, dangerous adventure, and the long fallout.

There are some sidelines and byways near the beginning of The Firm of Girdlestone which don't advance the plot, particularly the chapters on an election at Edinburgh University and a Rugby match. Mildly entertaining, but harmless — rather like the characters themselves at this point. But do persevere: it gets good, then it gets better. An enjoyable novel of character, finance, and adventure.


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

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