Dorothy Sayers, ed.: Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1934)
Martin Armstrong and the Art of Colouring the Facts
The short story “Sombrero” by English writer Martin Armstrong (1882-1974) was published in the collection The Fiery Dive and Other Stories (1929). Five years later, Dorothy Sayers included “Sombrero” in the sixth part of her series Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1934), the criteria for selection being that all the stories featured “dead bodies or very wicked people, preferably both” (Sayers, 1952, p.14). Sayers placed “Sombrero” in the category of tales of “sheer horror or supernatural mystery”, noting that the “whole virtue” of Armstrong’s story “lies in its power of suggestion”, which demands “very great skill with words” (p.15). “This is grimness with the smallest possible apparatus”, she writes, “but how effective it is” (p.17).
The small apparatus to which Sayers refers is drawn to the reader’s attention in the first two paragraphs of “Sombrero”, which, on the surface at least, is a straightforward exercise designed to prove the gentleman narrator’s assertion that facts are superior to fiction. This is borne out by his claim that a story “infinitely more moving than the finest fiction ever penned” can be generated by the reader’s ability to add details to “bare, uncoloured fact” (Armstrong, in Sayers, (1934) 1952, p.521). The narrator proves this point to his visitors with reference to a randomly selected piece of non-fiction: a report of the naval court-martial of Captain Warwick Lake published in The Sporting Magazine (1810).
That is the surface story, but at its core Armstrong’s “Sombrero” is about power. It operates as a clear denunciation of the British ruling class by interrogating the legitimacy of the decision made by Lake in 1807 to punish Cornish blacksmith Robert Jeffery, an impressed seaman on HMS Recruit, by marooning him, without provisions, on a tiny uninhabited island in the Atlantic Archipelago for the misdemeanor of having stolen a small quantity of rum and beer from the ship’s rations. Everything about the way the “facts” are coloured by the narrator of Armstrong’s story is designed to cement in his readers’ minds the terrifying vision of a man facing death all alone on an island, and to cast Lake as the villain who condemned a man to certain death simply because he had the power to do so.
Look, for instance, at the way Armstrong “colours” the scene the evening after Jeffery was landed on Sombrero, extrapolating from a simple detail in the testimony of the former Master on the Recruit, Mr Spencer, who mentioned that after dining with Lake that night the Captain remarked, “I wonder how old friend Jeffery comes on now: I suppose he is got housed by this time”(p.522). From this comment, a vision of Lake emerges in the narrator’s mind’s eye, laughing over the joke he has played on Jeffery. He is presented as a kind of leering ghoul, inebriated and unsteady, nearly choking with glee, “till his blue eyes bulged like marbles and his lipless mouth was twisted like a ragged wound” (p.522).
The varnishing of facts of this sort is key to Armstrong’s selective retelling of the trial. The bulk of the story “Sombrero” is a fairly straight transcript of the report of the actual hearing of Captain Warwick Lake (Appendix 1), but what Armstrong leaves out of the story is noteworthy. He presents only the prosecution and the verdict, entirely omitting the defence, which includes a lengthy letter composed by Lake and read aloud to the court by his Barrister friend Mr Best. The substance of the letter is that he never denied landing Jeffery on Sombrero, but that he denied placing Jeffery’s life in jeopardy as a result. Lake particularly objected to the way his motives and character had been maligned by the accusation leveled against him by an embittered former crewmember, not even present in court.
Another account of Lake’s court-martial, published in Cobbett’s Political Register in 1810, includes a copy of the letter in question, which led to the investigation of Lake’s actions and the eventual hearing (Appendix 2). Composed two years after the incident on the Recruit, the complainant Charles Morgan Thomas describes the object of his letter “as a duty I owe to humanity” to bring Lake, a “titled murderer” to justice for what he did to Jeffery, and to raise the curtain on the way Lake has been protected because of his status as a titled member of the nobility. “The honour of the nation,” Thomas wrote, has been “basely abandoned by a set of wretches calling themselves Commissioned Officers” (Cobbett, 1810, p.399).
Defending his actions, Lake claimed that he had been led to believe that Sombrero was inhabited, and that even when he later became aware that it wasn’t, he still didn’t believe that Jeffery faced certain death on the island. He was sure that assistance could be sought easily enough, Sombrero being ‘within the track of vessels on particular destinations, and which frequently pass within sail of the island’ (Sporting Magazine, 1810, p.295; Cobbett, 1810, p.414). The main point of Lake’s defence, therefore, was his unsubstantiated belief that Jeffery had not perished, but was very much alive, rescued by a ship and taken to America.
To the narrator in Armstrong’s story, the news that no trace of Jeffery was found when Lake was ordered to return to Sombrero to look for him several months later suggested that the poor man had abandoned all hope of rescue and, in all probability, walked into the sea. For Lake, however, the absence of any trace of the man suggested that there was “no reason to doubt but that Jeffery was taken off the island” (Sporting Magazine, 1810, p.295; Cobbett, 1810, p.414). Lake’s statement of defence notes that although his extensive investigations hadn’t yet yielded Jeffery, he suspected that the man was simply waiting out the result of the Court Martial before coming out of hiding to sue him for compensation.
As it turned out, this proved to be the case. An account of the story by writer Antoine Vanner in his blog The Dawlish Chronicles (an offshoot of his popular naval history novel series of the same name) tells us that Jeffery was indeed in America, having been rescued after eight days on Sombrero when he was seen waving his arms by Capt. John Dennis of the American schooner Adam. Jeffery had survived on the island thanks to a brief rain shower that supplied him with a small quantity of fresh water that he sucked off the rocks through a quill. He was repatriated to England where he sued Lake (just as the Captain predicted he would) and received the sum of £600 in an out of court settlement.
Vanner describes the story of the marooning of Jeffery as “a fascinating one” in the way that it “underlines just how omnipotent and capricious a captain could be, in the days before radio, once his ship had disappeared over the horizon”. Martin Armstrong’s story evidently seeks to make the same point. Armstrong was not privy to any of the facts, of course, beyond the details of the court martial in The Sporting Magazine. He could not have known that Jeffery survived, a fact that certainly weakens the case against Lake. But the question remains concerning his own culpability in weakening the case against Lake by omitting the Captain’s defence from “Sombrero”.
One can only conclude that the defence did not serve the characterization of Lake that Armstrong was devising. The colouring of details by the “fiction-mongering” narrator present Lake as a reprehensible and hideous figure of a man, debilitated by too much drink and rich food. It’s surprising to learn then from Vanner’s account that in reality, Lake was only 24 years at the time the incident with Jeffery occurred in 1807. Martin Armstrong would not have known this fact either, but it is of little importance. Although the fictional construct that is Lake does not accord with the reality of the man himself, physically at any rate, his characterization as a sociopathic megalomaniac does accord with the larger purpose of the story. Lake needs to perform as the archetype of the cruel naval captain in “Sombrero” in order to reinforce the anti-establishment agenda of Armstrong’s story. In this way the story successfully elicits sympathy from readers for the powerlessness of people like Jeffery in subordinate stations in life and subject to the cruel whims of their superiors.
The larger question is whether or not the impact of the story is undermined by the knowledge that Jeffery didn’t die, that Lake was only 24, and that Martin Armstrong was selective in what he chose to present to readers of the 1810 court martial of Captain Warwick Lake. Not in the least – that is simply the art of storytelling at work. Making strategic decisions about what best serves the dramatic arc of the tale is what a writer must do. Robert Jeffery was landed and left. That is a bare, uncoloured fact, and the only detail that matters to Armstrong. Leaving aside the creative colouring applied very effectively to Captain Lake in “Sombrero”, readers are still left with the point that no man, titled or otherwise, has the right to leave another man for dead.
1. Warwick Lake, 3rd Viscount Lake (1783–1848). Viscount Lake, of Delhi and Laswary and of Aston Clinton in the County of Buckingham, was a title in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. It was created in 1807 for the prominent soldier Gerard Lake, 1st Baron Lake. He was Commander-in-Chief of India from 1801 to 1805 and from 1805 to 1807. The titles became extinct on the death of the 3rd Viscount, Warwick Lake in 1848. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viscount_Lake].
2. Vanner goes on to write that Jeffery didn’t prosper, spending his money on a coasting schooner, selling his story in London theatres for a time, and dying of consumption a few years later, leaving a wife and child in penury. [http://dawlishchronicles.com/a-marooning-scandal-in-the-royal-navy-1807/">].
Armstrong, Martin (1929; 1934; 1952). Sombrero. In D. L. Sayers (Ed.), Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror, Part VI, pp. 519-38. London, England: Victor Gollancz.
Cobbett, W. M. (Jan-June, 1810). Captain Warwick Lake. Cobbett’s Political Register XVII, pp.396-416 & 459-464. London, England: Richard Bagshaw. Retrieved from:
Sayers, D. L. (1934; 1952). Introduction to Parts Five and Six, in D. L. Sayers (Ed.), Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror, Part V, pp. 14-20. London, England: Victor Gollancz.
The Trial of the Hon. Warwick Lake. (1810). The Sporting Magazine: or Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase, and every other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure, Enterprise & Spirit, 35, pp. 284-297. London, England: J. Wheble. Retrieved from:
Vanner, Antoine. (Aug. 2014). A Marooning Scandal in the Royal Navy 1807. The Dawlish Chronicles. Retrieved from: