Review: ‘The Hammerpond Park Burglary’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Hammerpond Park Burglary’ is not one of the best-known short stories by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), but in my determination to read all of his short fiction I thought it worth recording my comments on this slight piece of fiction, even though it has no elements of fantasy or science fiction and is more like a Raffles adventure than a quintessential slice of H. G. Wells’s imaginative fiction.

Here is a brief summary of the story’s plot. Teddy Watkins, a professional burglar, disguises himself as a landscape painter named Smith and goes to Hammerpond House to paint the house by moonlight. Unfortunately, he runs into some other artists at the house and has to answer their difficult technical questions about his art. He attracts the bewilderment of these artists when he doesn’t know the meaning of familiar phrases in the art world: for instance, when one of them asks him whether the organisers of an exhibition hanged him well, he interprets the phrase literally, rather than realising it refers to the hanging of his paintings.

After several such exchanges, he sets up his easel so it looks as though he’s painting. His assistant, Jim, sets up tripwires in the bushes to alert them to the presence of any intruders. While he is preparing to enter the house to steal the jewels, Watkins is alerted to the presence of men tripping over the wires, and a chase ensues. When he returns to his senses, Watkins is surrounded by people and fears he has been seized as the suspected burglar.

But he realises that the house’s owner, Lord Aveling, believes Watkins has apprehended two burglars (which in fact he had, albeit unwittingly). Aveling takes him in through the front door and shows him the diamonds the thieves were after.

Watkins was wounded slightly during the scuffle with the burglars, and when he tells Lord Aveling that he is tired, Aveling and the others leave him to rest. In the morning, they wake to find Watkins and the diamonds gone.

‘The Hammerpond Park Burglary’ is one of the lightest tales in Wells’s 1894 collection The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, and in terms of its scale or its suspense it cannot compare with stories like ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (which also contains knockabout humour, but with the fate of a whole city potentially at stake), ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ (another tale featuring an artist, in which the devil appears in the painting he is working on and promises him a masterpiece in exchange for his soul), or ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (in which a London Underground worker immolates both his boss, and himself, on the machine that powers the electric railway).

Indeed, even the other more frivolous tales in the collection, such as ‘A Deal in Ostriches’, are more cunningly constructed than this story, which is perhaps more of a skit than anything more substantial. The ‘twist’ at the end of the story isn’t even a twist, since we already know Watkins’s true reason for being at the house, so it comes as no surprise when he makes off with the diamonds in the night. Wells was a gifted storyteller, but this one is a bit of a dud.

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