All I knew of Beau Geste was from a Goon Show episode.
Oh yes, about the three brothers who, having come down from Balliol School, attended a ball where their mother’s diamond was stolen, and rather than sneak on each other, joined the Foreign Legion!
Right lot of charlies, weren’t… er… I mean um, noble lads.
It’s a cracking yarn, full of “adventure, travel, novelty, spacious life, mysterious Africa, the desert, fighting, and all that appeals to the heart of romantic youth”.
I wasn’t expecting it, however, to open with a striking mystery.
A French officer comes across a fort in the middle of the Sahara. At first glance, it seems fully manned – but he discovers that the figures on the walls are all dead. Somebody has propped up the corpses of the soldiers.
In the centre of the fort lies the commandant, run through with a bayonet. One of his own men killed him.
Another corpse is that of a man the legionary knows, holding a confession of theft. But he could not have killed the commandant – and there is nobody else alive in the fort…
And a trumpeter whom the officer sent into the fort disappeared into thin air.
I also discovered that if I join the Foreign Legion, after five years I can become a naturalised Frenchman! There must, though, be easier ways of going to Paris than facing mutiny, murderous Touaregs, the cafard (desert-madness), and sadists like Colour-Sgt Lejaune, “dismissed from the Belgian Congo service for brutalities and atrocities exceeding even the limit fixed by good King Leopold’s merry men”.
There’s also a terrific last chapter, describing four of the characters’ journey from Azzigig, in the French Soudan, to Kano in Nigeria: “the longest and most arduous ride ever achieved by Europeans in the Sahara”. Disguised as Senussi (a Sufi order), they visit a tribe who live in a ruined city, and escape from the Sultan of Agades.