Gary Turner wrote this review.
Lord Dunsany was born in 1878 and died in 1957; he was born at a time when the sun never set on the British flag, trains ran at a breakneck speed of 30 mph or so, and Africa was still the Dark Continent. He lived to see airplanes crossing the world, the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the Iron Curtain, and flying saucers. He fought in two wars, traveled extensively, and was a big-game hunter. Relatively late in his life he began a series of short stories concerning Mr. Joseph Jorkens, a one-time adventurer, traveler, and hunter, but now old, obese, and not too well off, the raconteur of the Billiards Club (where billiards is not played) who trades his stories for large whiskeys (the Billiards Club has two sizes, small and large, but Jorkens can’t tolerate the small), to help his memory and to help him moisten his mouth during a long tale. His ability to mooch drinks is an art form, and he has few equals. Another regular at the club is Jorkens’s skeptic and would-be-rival raconteur, Terbut. Terbut is always at the ready to try to disprove Jorkens’s stories, but Jorkens is the master; always, it is “someone you would not have heard of” or “I was going to one of those places that one goes to,” leaving little factual information to debate. Terbut occasionally is the victim of Jorkens’s slyness, like the time he bet Terbut that the distance from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriar Bridge is longer than the distance from Blackfriar Bridge to Westminster Bridge. Yes, Terbut takes the bait, and loses the bet, as the road is an arc, and one familiar with racetracks, like Jorkens, knows the inner track is always shorter. In another bet with Terbut, Jorkens bets that he has been on the other side of the sun. I’ll let you figure that one out.
The three volumes of The Collected Jorkens contain all of the Jorkens stories, written from 1926 until Lord Dunsany’s death in 1957, and are roughly in chronological order. The tales are too numerous to list, and deal with adventures worldwide, but concentrated in Africa. Lord Dunsany, through these Jorkens tales, is masterful in his descriptions of nature. The beauty he ascribes to the Sahara and to other parts of Africa made me yearn to actually see them, to camp in the desert, to travel through the jungles and see the flora and fauna — these alone make the stories worth reading. The tales themselves are for the most part excellent, and they are told descriptively, without unnecessary verbiage.
Fantastic and entertaining, some of my favorites include the four-tusked elephant, which a hunter was obsessed with bagging, but ends up with the elephant triumphant; the zoo showman, who travels to Africa to obtain more apes for his circuses, and ends up as the apes’ display; the lion and unicorn fight; the airplane trip to Mars; the treatment to age one 20 years; smuggling ivory “in” a boat; Jorkens tried by animal judge and jury; and the general unease that Jorkens viewed in the future. Some of the stories could almost fit today’s environment, such as the biowarfare and atomic devastation ones. Jorkens uses a medium to contact spirits that tell of the destruction of the moon, of the planet that became the asteroid belt, and of the entire universe.
Although forced for lack of funds to trades stories for drinks, great riches at one time or another were in Jorkens’s grasp, such as a diamond large enough to camp upon, his sale of the Gulf Stream, a valley filled with blue diamonds, a beach of pearls, an island of gold nuggets, and other tales, but Fate always managed to leave Jorkens with little or less than he started with. His dealings with spells also came to naught, like the time he was guaranteed the winning lottery number, twice, and the time he could foresee the future in order to pick the winner at the races. Occasionally he found romance, having married a mermaid, and a Zulu (who he apparently deserted, the cad!), and once camping with four young, nubile slave girls. Jorkens, like the British gentleman he is, does not kiss and tell, and the reader must supply the details himself.
When I read any book, I find that I judge the book best on the last page. If I’m relieved that the book is finally over, it is “bad.” If I’m content that I’m at the ending, and I’m satisfied with it, it falls into the “goood” category. If I read the last page and I’m sad that it’s over, it goes into my “great” bookcase, to be pulled out at times to be reread. After reading all 154 Jorkens stories in this three volume set, I was truly sad that I’d read them all, and I would never, ever again read a new Jorkens story. These three books are worth owning, for the stories, for a glimpse of an age now past, and also for the examples they give would-be writers.
(Night Shade Books, 2004 and 2005)