Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous for pioneering the whodunit genre as we know it. But his work is worth re-visiting not just for Sherlock Holmes’s deductive powers. In "The Tragedy of Korosko," first published in 1898, he created a novel of eerie topicality. It’s a sharp analysis of the same clash of civilization we have been debating since the Islamist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.
Written more than a century ago, page after page the book’s contemporary relevance comes as a shock to today’s reader. In "Korosko" you encounter jihadism, Osama Bin Laden-like characters, pirates, Western soldiers in a Muslim country, a debate over whether it is better to stay the course or withdraw the troops, conspiracy theories, (British) imperialism, France’s smoky opposition to hyperpowers, and also Darfur.
The novel tells the story of a group of Western tourists on a Nile cruiser called "Korosko" who are kidnapped during a desert trip by a jihadist cell of Dervishes, which was what the Sudanese zealots of the Mahdi were called in Conan Doyle’s time. During the course of events, the Korosko is sacked by pirates as Dervishes behead some of the hostages and plan to sell the Western women at Khartoum’s slave market.
Even today’s ideological rift within the Western world is already foretold here. In the book’s first pages, a French tourist and an American fellow have a lively chat about western imperialism that is reminiscent of more recent exchanges:
"’Dervishes, Mister Headingly!’ said he, speaking excellent English, but separating his syllables as Frenchmen will. ‘There are no Dervishes. They do not exist.’
"’Why, I thought the woods were full of them,’ said the American. . . .
"’I repeat that there are no Dervishes. They were an invention of Lord Cromer in the year 1885.’
"’You don’t say!’ cried Headingly.
"’It is well known in Paris, and has been exposed in La Patrie and other of our so well-informed papers.’"
The Granger Collection
A 19th-century depiction of Dervishes battling the British in Sudan.
The French tourist goes on to express the same antagonism toward the world’s policeman of his time, Britain, that modern Frenchmen often have toward the U.S. and its foreign interventions today.
"Pah, my friend, you do not know the English. . . . ‘Here is Egypt weak,’ they cry. ‘Allons!’ and down they swoop like a gull upon a crust. ‘You have no right there,’ says the world. ‘Come out of it!’ But England has already begun to tidy everything. ‘Come out,’ says the world. ‘Certainly,’ says England; ‘just wait one little minute until I have made everything nice and proper.’ So the world waits for a year or so, and then it says once again, ‘Come out.’ ‘Just wait a little,’ says England; ‘there is trouble at Khartoum, and when I have set that all right I shall be very glad to come out.’ So they wait until it is all over, and then again they say, ‘Come out.’ ‘How can I come out,’ says England, ‘when there are still raids and battles going on? If we were to leave, Egypt would be run over.’ ‘But there are no raids,’ says the world. ‘Oh, are there not?’ says England, and then within a week sure enough the papers are full of some new raid of Dervishes. We are not all blind, Mister Headingly. We understand very well how such things can be done. A few Bedouins, a little backsheesh, some blank cartridges, and, behold—a raid!"
The French tourist’s conspiracy theories are almost identical to those spun by some of his countrymen today, such as those of Thierry Meyssan, whose 2002 book, "The Big Lie"—claiming 9/11 was an inside job carried out by elements of the U.S. government—was translated into 27 languages.
Conan Doyle has obvious fun dissecting the Frenchman’s absurdities. The American tourist asks his French comrade what would England have gained from all of this: "She gets the country, monsieur," was the answer from the French gentleman.
"’I see. You mean, for example, that there is a favorable tariff for British goods?’
"’No, monsieur; it is the same for all.’
"’Well, then, she gives the contracts to Britishers?’
"’For example, the railroad that they are building right through the country, the one that runs alongside the river, that would be a valuable contract for the British?’"
Monsieur Fardet was an honest man, if an imaginative one. "’It is a French company, monsieur, which holds the railway contract,’ said he."
And just as the conspiracy theories were almost identical 113 years ago, so were Western attempts to appease the Islamists—with the same predictable results.
When the Muslim fighters abducted the Western group, the French tourist yells: "Vive le Khalifa! Vive le Mahdi." For his eager submission, one of the jihadis "beats him into silence" with a blow from behind. But even after the blow, the Frenchman remains a true believer in the virtue of appeasement. And so he tries to explain the ideological divide between Western nations to the ferocious Islamist leader Ali Wad Ibrahim. But what the Frenchman doesn’t understand is that for an Islamist, all Westerners are enemies.
In 1898, Arthur Conan Doyle (below) wrote the eerily prescient "Tragedy of Korosko."
"’Tell him that I am a Frenchman, dragoman. Tell him that I am a friend of the Khalifa. Tell him that my countrymen have never had any quarrel with him, but that his enemies are also ours.’"
"’The chief asks what religion you call your own,’ said Mansoor. ‘The Khalifa, he says, has no necessity for any friendship from those who are infidels and unbelievers.’"
In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, the author writes: "Here were to be read the strength and danger of the Mahdi movement; here in these convulsed faces, in that fringe of waving arms, in these frantic, red-hot souls, who asked nothing better than a bloody death, if their own hands might be bloody when they met it."
In the foreign-policy battle already raging back then between Realpolitik, idealism and isolationism, Conan Doyle takes the side occupied today by neo-conservatives. When one British tourist wonders whether England wouldn’t be better off giving up the role of world policeman—"we get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it?"—Conan Doyle uses the character of Captain Cochrane to argue for moral clarity:
"Behind national interests and diplomacy and all that there lies a great guiding force—a Providence, in fact—which is for ever getting the best out of each nation and using it for the good of the whole. When a nation ceases to respond, it is time that she went into hospital for a few centuries, like Spain or Greece—the virtue had gone out of her."
The story ends happily. Just as the Dervishes are about to slaughter the Western hostages for their refusal to convert to Islam, the British Army and its Egyptian allies figure out a way to save them.
"Hurrah, hurrah! Merveilleusement bien! Vivent les Anglais! Vivent les Anglais!," the French conspiracy theorist rejoices.
"The nineteenth century had been revenged upon the seventh," writes Conan Doyle. Or, as the French like to say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Mr. Rocca is foreign affairs commentator for Il Sole 24 Ore. His latest book, "Sulle Strade di Barney—Viaggio nel mondo di Mordecai Richler" (Bompiani, 2010), is being translated into English.