‘Cause who doesn’t like a good treasure hunt? And what better time of year to curl up with a cuppa and a good spine tingling read? So, to oblige you, I’ve rounded up five classic treasure hunt stories for your TBR. And here’s an interesting fact: only one of them contains pirates. (So much for that trope.)
#1. (Hint: This shouldn’t come as a surprise) Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Things were never the same for Jim Hawkins after that salty old sailor, Billy Bones, with his songs and spyglass, came and took up residence at his family’s inn, the Admiral Benbow. While searching through the sailor’s belongings after his death for payment, Jim grabs an oilskin packet that contains a map of ‘Treasure Island’ the prize sought the pirates who were once Billy Bone’s comrades. Before much longer, Jim finds himself the cabin boy aboard the Hispaniola, the squire Mr. Trelawney’s new ship, sailing for Treasure Island . But soon Jim discovers that there is mutiny afoot, and he, together with Dr. Livsey, Captain Smollett, the Squire, and barely a handful of faithful crew members, are trapped on Treasure Island, with a band of murderous pirates for company.
Now, I read this a few years back in e-book format and didn’t enjoy it a whole lot. I confess freely I was reading for the sake of reading, which is a terrible mistake to make. But, you see, it was for the cause of the library reading program. The prize was a B&N gift card, and the participants were awarded one entry per book they read. I have long been a speedreader, and I took full advantage of this set-up. I ended up with some thirty-odd entries, making up what must have been 3/4’s of the entries, and won the gift card.
The next year, they changed the entry requirements to 10 hours apiece. ( I can’t imagine why; and they oughtn’t to discriminate so against talented readers. Tut, tut. 😉 )
I have slightly curbed my tendency to skim at breakneck speed, though it comes in handy when previewing books I’m interested in.
But the long and short of it is this: I was left with a muddled and not-so-excited impression of Treasure Island after my first time through (and probably a headache to boot.)
However, when I was compiling this list, it came to my mind, and I decided to give it a second chance. And boy! am I ever glad I did. For I enjoyed it a good bit more, having taken time to understand exactly what was happening. Treasure Island is a book to which one must pay a good bit of attention while reading in order to understand, and when I did I came away with the greater appreciation for it. After all, it’s a shallow book that can be skimmed through and fully understood. I might just have to re-read Kidnapped before long.
And I sympathize with Ben Gunn. Cheese, please.
#2. The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ten years ago, Miss Mary Morstan’s father went missing. For the last six, she has received an annual gift of a rare pearl from an anonymous person, and most lately she has received a note asking her to meet the sender at a designated place. This has brought her to 221b Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Watson. They find themselves on the trail of the great Agra treasure that involves a boat chase, a one-legged man with a cannibal accomplice, with all the other clever embellishments and peculiarities of a the cases that Sherlock Holmes loves best—and for Dr. Watson, a budding romance.
What can I say? Once again, Conan Doyle is flawless. Well, almost flawless. The circumstances of Sherlock Holmes’ use of cocaine is most shocking, maybe more so because it is such an unexpected thing to find in the era. I don’t recall a whole lot about the first time I read The Sign of the Four, but I do remember being distinctly disgusted by the opening page. I’m team Watson. Don’t do drugs, kids.
Oh, and also, how could I forget how funny Dr. Watson was? I mean, is this really how guys feel when they’re thinking about a girl they love?
‘I endeavored to cheer and amuse her by reminisces of my adventures in Afghanistan; but to tell the truth, I myself was so excited as to our situation, and so curious as to our destination, that my stories were slightly involved. To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.’
#3. Prester John by John Buchan
When Davie Crawfurd and two of his friends play hooky from church to play on the rocks by the shore they end up witnessing a pagan ritual performed by a man purported to be a visiting minister.
Seven years have passed, but the incident has stuck with Davie. En route to South Africa to make his fortune storekeeping in the frontier town of Blaauwildebeestefontein, fate throws him in with the Rev. John Laputa once more.
An inexplicable mystery hangs over Blaauwildebeestefontein which no one has been able to solve. As time goes by, Davie and the local schoolteacher, Mr. Wardlaw, catch wind of an IBD (illicit diamond broking) operation, but there’s more to it than that.
The Rev. Laputa is orchestrating a great uprising of all the native tribes in the region against the colonists, using his skills as a orator, a priceless relic necklace made of rubies, and a twisted theology of truth and error to stir up and unite the people against foreigners.
When the war drums roll at sunset, it falls to Davie to penetrate the headquarters of the uprising to delay the attack. Along the way are many treacheries and a greedy traitor, and all the while thousands of lives are hanging in the balance.
I first became interested in this after I read The Island of Sheep, the fifth and last Hannay thriller. Partly because I was sorry to have finished the series, partly because of the backstory anecdote Hannay shared early in the story about how he came to be beholden to Lombard. It was set in South Africa, a place Buchan was familiar with, and the unique, wild setting fascinated me.
It didn’t disappoint in Prester John, though you’ll want to either read the version with the illustrated map, or brush up on your South African geography. Bergs, kopjes, veld; you’ll be hopelessly confused if you don’t familiarize yourself, if not beforehand, then as you read.
There is a strain of period racist sentiments throughout the book, but no book is perfect. I disagree with the prejudices stated, but I think John Buchan was a fair man, even if he was a colonialist. Davie Crawfurd is a fair character who treats all men and women according to their character, (see his treatment of the drunken, dishonest white storekeeper when he mistreats the young native hired girl, Zeeta.) It takes a fair man to write another fair man, and the ending was also indicative of the sort of man I think Buchan was.
#4. Prisoners of the Sea by Florence Kingsley
‘There were five persons in the boat, three men and two women. . .’
Thus begins this wild, epic, sea adventure. The five passengers, first of the lifeboat, and later of a mysterious drifting yacht, are cast ashore a deserted island with a great, empty chateau. As they seek refuge in its walls, mystery envelops them. First Henri’s dissapearance, then the arrival of the soldiers to demolish the chateau. Meanwhile, the stranded travelers lurk under their enemies noses (or rather, over their heads), wondering if they will ever be safely reunited in America.
This story, one of Huguenots seeking religious and political freedom, is the stretch in this list, since the treasure in it is something of an afterthought. But it’s so outlandish and otherworldly that it honestly deserved honorable mention here. There’s a lot of stretches in this book. It’s a true mystery, with the solution at the very end, and an odd story if I’ve ever read one. It’s the weirdest thing you could read without heading into the fantasy/sci-fi realm.
But if I had to choose a book to throw across a room, it would be Prisoners of the Sea. About three-quarters of the way through you do start to wonder if Kingsley was trying to rack up her wordcount to earn money. The circles she ran her poor characters in amount more to torture than ensamples of divine Providence.
Note: It’s public domain, so I read it on Google Books, but in that format it has all the language of the original. There’s a print edition put out by Lamplighter, and I don’t doubt that all the profanity has been removed from theirs.
And last, but not least,
Lysbeth, by Sir Henry Rider Haggard
1544, Spanish occupied Holland.
The townspeople of Leyden have turned out onto the frozen meer for a day of ice skating and races. Among them is Lysbeth van Hout, a wealthy heiress, her cousin Dirk, who is in love with her, and the Count Juan de Montavalo, a Spanish officer who covets Lysbeth’s riches. Both men are to compete in the race. The count asks Lysbeth to be his passenger, and the repercussions will last long after that day.
The count wins Lysbeth’s hand by threatening to blackmail Dirk, but his past is catching up with him. Just as Lysbeth is about to bear his child, he is caught and sentenced to the galleys. Lysbeth is released from her marriage, but there is left Montavalo’s son, Adrian. Penniless and humiliated, she accepts a proposal from Dirk, who is free from the threats Montavalo had leveled against him, and they are married.
Years pass. Dirk and Lysbeth have a second son, Foy, who grows into a fair and simple man, much different from his Spanish brother Adrian—and a solid Protestant. When Dirk’s cousin is compromised because of his faith, he sends his daughter Elsa to Leyden with a secret message. Adrian rescues her and her companions from a band of robbers intent on capturing the letter, and brings her safely to Leyden. Both brothers fall for the lovely girl, but pressing matters are at hand.
The letter Elsa has brought details the plans to protect her father’s wealth and keep it from the Spanish, who covet the Brandt’s gold and jewels. A plan is set into motion, headed by Foy and the family servant Martin the Red, but there are those in their midst who would betray them.
The Spanish grip on Holland is tightening. Montavalo has returned from the galleys and is plotting his revenge, and he discovers a channel by which he can supersede his fellow occupiers and commandeer Brandt’s wealth for himself. But there are obstacles in his path that must be dealt with first. . .
If Lysbeth had been written today, Haggard’s editor would have axed the whole first section and sent the manuscript back with ‘WORK IT IN’ written in big red letters across the page.
The book is split into three parts, The Sowing, The Reaping, and The Harvest. Technically, The Sowing is backstory, and the real plot begins on page 1 of The Reaping. Unfortunately, you can’t skip the first section without being hideously confused, but I won’t ticket you if you speed read. The adventure in the rest of the story is worth the frustration of the first part.
Of all the titles here Lysbeth is my favorite, a complex tale that can be read over and over again. Like Prisoners of the Sea, it is set during the Inquisition, but in Holland rather than France and dealing much more directly with the Reformation. It is also much more of a treasure hunt story. There are boat chases, swordfights, a buried treasure, and damsels in distress, an element missing from Treasure Island. The end of the treasure was stellar, probably the best resolution I’ve read yet, but the characters’ happy ending comes at a high cost. Lysbeth is a prime example of excellent historical fiction and earns a well-deserved place on this list.